Thursday 31 October 2019

If Labour Loses ...

As households shudder in anticipation of the nation's trick or treat'ers descending on their doorstep, there is a terrifying something Labour people need to think about. There's this frightful ghoul haunting our political imaginations - and one we need to face up to. I'm talking about the spectre of defeat. Yes, this general election is open and no one knows what result we'll be cheering or booing when the exit poll drops. Labour has its plan and can win, and so does Boris Johnson. Therefore if things go awry for Labour, we have to think about what happens next. We need to plan for victory and defeat and do so now.

Obviously, there is losing and there is losing. Labour lost the 2017 general election but confounded expectations to such a degree that it effectively emerged the winner, while Theresa May will forever be tarnished with the brush of failure. This time, if we do improve our vote and gain seats but not become the biggest party, or if we fall back, following John McDonnell's remarks earlier this month it is likely both he and Jeremy will resign. If that is the case, nevertheless there is no pressing reason why both should step down immediately. For example, Michael Howard stayed in post as Tory caretaker after their 2005 defeat while its leadership election was going on. There's no reason why we couldn't do the same and indeed, we should encourage Jeremy and John to do so. As this brief exchange notes, there is unfinished business aplenty when it comes to rule changes. The departure of Corbyn does not necessarily and should not herald the end of the left's dominance of the party. We still need his NEC seat while the contest unfolds and, well, do you really want Tom Watson as the interim boss?

That's the first thing then. Jeremy staying in post helps stymie the shenanigans of the right while the leadership is up in the air. There is a second more important reason for his staying on temporarily: the membership. It is true people flocked to the Labour Party not because of Jeremy's saintliness or magic grandpa nonsense, but because he articulated something different and broke decisively with the miserable managerialism of his predecessor. His continued tenure at the top of the party is a short cut for the millions who don't follow things closely indicating that the party's heart remains in the right place, and is pushing policies that stick up for constituencies long neglected by previous Labour leaderships, and the rest. Unfortunately, because Corbynism hasn't bedded down a programme of education and cultural transformation (it's still the case that if you want to avoid politics, your best bet is a Labour Party meeting), there is every danger his resignation would see tens of thousands of members follow suit and/or let their subscriptions lapse - as well as an unwelcome return of the brigades of melts and right wingers who previously, and very kindly assisted the left's efforts by demobilising themselves. Obviously, it goes without saying that the left will continue to rule the roost as long as it has the numbers, recent setbacks notwithstanding.

It's therefore encouraging then to see Jeremy plug Momentum, considering it has a big role in whatever happens next. The more members that can be signed up with the organised left, the more we will hang on to and continue our programme of transforming the party. Conversely, the more isolated the member, the more likely any shock of defeat and ensuing despair will push them back into private life.

And lastly, the most vexed question is who comes after Jeremy? It's pointless speculating and picking and choosing while the campaign is fresh and winning is a very real possibility, but there's no point being naive. Would-be leadership contenders will be doing their quiet soundings right now, asking for support here and there, lining up union backing and making sure their people are ready for the stretch of internal campaigning. It's what happened in 2010 and 2015 ... For Corbynism after Corbyn, however, our objective has to be the maintenance of our policy platform, the only one appropriate to the conditions of the 21st century, and unite around one leadership candidate who can consolidate the work already done and build on it.

Again, this is not a counsel of despair. Labour can win and, according to the patron saint of polling, John Curtice, a Labour minority government is the most likely outcome. But if that LibDem vote stays stubborn and, despite the deepening social problems and environmental crisis we're mired in, Brexit dominates everything - as Johnson hopes - we have to be prepared to fail as well. Nothing is set in stone. If we stumble on the 12th there will be new crises, new opportunities, and openings Labour can exploit. We can still make this century ours if we suffer a setback, but let's be clear, none of us want to spend the next five years pratting around with a socially regressive Brexit deal while the climate heats up. We're playing with high stakes, and the left needs to be prepared for the next move if it doesn't go our way.

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Wednesday 30 October 2019

How the Tories Can Win

As is often wryly observed, the Tories play politics on easy mode. With a press happy to back them, and a media culture always more oriented toward obsessing over Labour's struggles and foibles, it's not difficult to see why. And as we enter this general election we see the Tories enjoying double-digit leads in most polls and a sense of entitlement from Boris Johnson and friends that they're simply going to walk it. Talk about de ja vu. And so we should properly consider their position and their strategy. After all, victory is not just about organising your own forces - but by disrupting and disturbing those of your opponents too.

The first thing worth remembering is the Tories are in long-term decline. There are three interrelated aspects to this. First, the class structure of all advanced capitalist societies are undergoing a profound change in which immaterial labour is the increasingly dominant characteristic of work. i.e. Whether you are a low paid worker putting in the miles at an Amazon warehouse, a shop assistant in a high street Next outlet, an IT worker, a teacher, a social worker, or a manager your labour is qualitatively the same: the production of knowledge, services, care, data, and relationships. To use the clumsy body/mind division, we've moved from the kind of work where you are a body to one in which you are a brain. It's the kind of work that mobilises your social and intellectual competencies, one where you employed because of the type of person you are. In one sense this is nothing new. This has characterised the hidden and dismissed domestic labour women have undertaken and are still largely responsible for, but what is novel is its generalisation to the workforce at large. This has a number of implications for the balance of power re: capital vs labour and the types and transformation of alienation, but one key consequence is a shift in values away from conservatism to tolerance and social liberalism. And so those political scientists who witter about class voting being replaced by values voting have got it wrong: values voting is symptomatic of class voting or, rather, class cohort voting. The younger you are, the more likely you are to be engaged in immaterial labour of some description, and therefore the more likely social liberalism is your cultural default. The Conservatives on the other hand rely on either retirees, sections of the managerial middle class, the petit bourgeoisie, and older workers who are much less likely to be engaged with immaterial labour. The problem the Tories have then is their base is shrinking and the new class of workers, or the socialised worker, are rising.

However, it's more than a question of simple non-congruence between the Tory party and socialised workers. After all, there has always been tensions and lack of fit between workers generally and Conservatism, but nevertheless significant minorities of workers have traditionally been anti-Labour and voted Tory. I know, it's where I'm from. No, what harms Tory chances is the fact their voter coalition, which is heavily dependent on petty property ownership, measure their wealth in terms of property prices and, for a small but important layer, derive income from renting out property. The Tories are not about to build houses anywhere near to the level of demand when their chances of getting into office are dependent on keeping these people sweet at the expense of other people who are never going to vote Tory anyway. And so young workers are locked out of property ownership, which has some quite serious long-term consequences for the Tories. We often talk about how people are supposed to become more conservative as they grow older, but this is not some essentialised characteristic gushing from the wellspring of wisdom. It is a concrete social process inseparable from property acquisition. If your conservative party is dependent on property ownership but is putting up barriers to its acquisition, you are not reproducing your voters. And this is without talking about the consequences of a decade of cuts, the pitiful rights at work, and all the rest building up a head of anger and bitterness that will ensure millions of people, regardless of how wealthy they become, are never going to support the Tories under any circumstances.

In this sense, the Tories are trapped because their constituency is in decline. And matters are not helped by by the split in finance capital, traditionally a core Tory constituent but one whose EU markets-facing arm has given up and is now pouring money into the Liberal Democrats or, until a couple of days ago, the People's Vote campaign. It's doubtful any Tory would write about their predicament in these terms but they know they have serious problems. Plenty of Tories have expended speechifying and ink on how to reach out to the young, which is sublimated code speak for arresting their long-term decline. Some of it involves addressing the property problem, and other suggestions range from the idiotic, the comical, and the bizarre. Boris Johnson feels this crisis in his bones too. Unlike any other Tory leader of my life time, his embrace of new technologies, redolent of Harold Wilson's white heat of technology, is more than just show and cosying up to the frontier of capital: he hopes to project a forward facing image linking his dynamism to that of the green industries, the digital industries, and the space industries. However, this is a problem to be faced in time. And so there is only one route to another five years in government: putting Theresa May's voter coalition back together.

As we saw in 2017, May was able to scrape up a coalition of voters with the characteristics described above on the basis of delivering a hard Brexit (yes, leave/remain is symptomatic of the values divide by class component and cohort as well) and, to a lesser extent, talking up the spine tingling shivers Jeremy Corbyn sent down their collective spines. Johnson's strategy is about doing the same, except with unseemly haste. Appearing desperate to get Brexit sorted so the Tories can get on with the domestic agenda, a sound bite I'm already tired of hearing sundry MPs emit, is about getting these people on board as well as scooping up those suffering with Brexit fatigue. And let's face it, who isn't? Though the irony is should Johnson win and get his deal through, we'll here no end of it when we get down to the brass tacks of the trade deal and the campaigns for re-entering the EU. Yet while the opposition is ostensibly divided between Labour and the LibDems, this should be enough. It is, if you like, a 40% strategy. Contrary to Blairist dogma, elections aren't always won on the centre ground.

Of course, there are two vulnerabilities here. By putting all his eggs in the Brexit basket, Johnson can potentially conjure up a good vote that will get him over the line provided the Brexit Party doesn't spoil his party. And what do you know, there are indications that nice Mr Farage is happy to oblige. The second big difficulty is as much as Johnson wants this election to be about Brexit, May found to her cost how other issues can rudely intrude. And they can so again. For all the trumpeting of turning on the spending taps, Johnson's domestic agenda is weak sauce. When your top line is recruiting back the 20,000 coppers you spent the previous decade sacking, you know there isn't much in the tank. Indeed, as widely reported a fracking lobbyist has been hired to write the party's manifesto, which is sure to be seized upon by the other parties. True, Johnson might say he wants Brexit done but he's got to show his voters what his domestic agenda will look like, and his timidity makes him vulnerable. More plod, more crack downs on crime tickle the traditional Tory fancy, but the Australian being boring strategy might not work when your opponent is seeking to inspire.

And so the Tories are set to mono-maniacally bang on about Brexit, and throw the usual smears Labour's way. As such it's a numbers strategy, of turning out Leave voters and not bothering trying to win anyone else over. It's classic Johnson: the perceived easiest route to something. And it could well work if Labour prove unable to squeeze the LibDems. Our job is to make sure it fails, and fails miserably.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

This Is Our Chance

And we're game on. No point moaning and weeping as the 2017-19 parliament slips into the history books. We've got a job to do: defeat the Tories and return a government that can face up to the serious and potentially existential problems this century is throwing at us.

Labour are the first out the blocks with this campaign vid. Apols for the duff quality - my video editing skills leave a lot to be desired!

Monday 28 October 2019

Remainers at War

What to make of the major falling out at the top of continuity remain? Moves by Roland Rudd to sack Tom Baldwin and James McGory, the so-called People's Vote's chief spinner and campaigns guru respectively has produced the most unseemly of public spats. Alastair Campbell, having got over his recent tantrum, took to Twitter to defend Baldwin and McGory from the attempted coup. You can read his catty response for yourself. Indeed, the small number of staff variously employed by the principal organisations that make up the People's Vote walked out in support of the sacked pair, which must be the first time a wildcat solidarity action has ever received enthusiastic Blairite support. And this is sure to rumble on as it appears Rudd does not have the authority to sack anyone associated with PV, given that he heads up just one of its constituent organisations: Open Britain.

Where there are fallings outs in elite organisations, politics has to be involved somewhere. But the politics here seem quite confused. According to Owen Jones, Baldwin's arrival at PV towers in summer 2018 coincided with a relaxing of an anti-Labour atmos. Indeed, speaking on the Today programme, Baldwin criticises the LibDems for pushing their election plan and said they were "playing some strange games" with the campaign. Well, yes, but Baldwin is a hopeless naif if he thought for one second they'd subordinate their perceived party interests to the remain greater good. And yet part of Rudd's beef with Campbell, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Chuka Umunna (while he was a nominal Labour MP) was their determination to use the campaign less for securing a second referendum and more as a wedge between the pro-EU support of Corbynism's mass support and the EU-scepticism of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership. Rudd was, at least on the referendum issue, less partisan and largely unconcerned with Labour's factional ins and outs. And so we're left with a confusing mess where the "pro-Labour" people are using PV for factional ends to undermine Labour, and the non-Labour Ruddites are moving against the "Labourists" to ... protect Labour. The tangled web of elite politics, eh?

Remember. The People's Vote campaign is an elite endeavour. It certainly has organised impressive demonstrations which, were they efforts pulled off by the usual suspects on the left, would have excited many a Trot newspaper editorial. Objectively speaking, they might not have secured their referendum but they have done the next big thing: Labour's now signed up thanks to the weather making of the campaign, and the capitalisation on it by the LibDems. And now there are genuine grass roots organisations up and down the country doing stuff, like organising stalls, sorting out coaches for the next big march, putting on public meetings and the like. And yet the critique made of PV here last October remains true: they are a bourgeois social movement. That is for all the campaigners on the ground and the hundreds of thousands who've demonstrated, the movement is rigidly controlled from the top by a (formerly) close-knit group of senior politicians, their hangers on, and Westminster-adjacent business people. They determine the programme, who gets to speak for the movement, what they have to say, and who addresses the assembled throngs from its platforms. All the branding, materials, and messaging are handed down from above and funded almost exclusively by the rich. The activist cadre in the rest of the country have no say over the matter.

How has this happened? As argued before, Liberalism itself is an elite social movement, a network of political notables and business interests who are, or rather were, distributed across the main parties. And so why, for instance, Tory and Labour MPs were able to cooperate over the formation of Change UK and their subsequent stroll into the LibDems is because they were part of the same liberal team. The LibDems and its forerunners were traditionally the "open" manifestation of this faction, but liberalism was also overrepresented in the Parliamentary Labour Party (and in the party membership), and a section of latter day Toryism so belonged. And these are now elites in exile. Corbynism has routed them in Labour, and the attempts to heal the Europe rift in the Conservative Party has affected a split in its core City of London constituency. Any hopes of the Tories taking a liberal turn a la the Dave years is dead, and so there are two routes back to the political big time: continuing to needle Labour from the outside and hoping somehow a coming election defeat offers the chance of taking the party back to, and back for the right. Or investing their hopes in the rejuvenated LibDems. Presently, the latter scheme appears the more viable of the two. The party has real momentum behind it and offers a "sensible" capitalist alternative to the Tories while forswearing Corbyn and all his works. LibDem coffers also overflow with the largesse of banished liberal capital. And yet the Blairites haven't given up. British capital as a whole suffered a defeat when the left took over Labour, despite having previously thought the party had been made safe for the spivs and speculators of British finance capital and business generally, and they know for as long as the party has a mass purchase it's an ever-present potential menace to that class. Defeating Corbynism is the prerequisite for making politics a bourgeois playground for neoliberal technocracy again - and the conduit for ensuring their interests get first shout.

Therefore the PV faction fight is inseparable from these strategies of return. The "Labourists" like Mandelson and friends are annoyed because the utility of the PV campaign has diminished as the LibDems' standing has grown, effectively peeling off a layer of the right's traditional support within Labour and with them a section of the electorate - people any reconquest of Labour must be able to draw upon in the struggle to come. And, even worse, Labour's move to the second referendum and repeated line about only voting for an election when no deal is off the table makes the PV wedge less effective, and the possibility their criticisms of Labour become more shrill and desperate. Meanwhile, the Ruddites are afraid that this might jeopardise a cross-party effort of turning out a remain vote at the next election (definitely not 12th December). Why would Labour Party people, even those sympathetic to the PV campaign, want anything to do with them if they spend the campaign trying to bounce Corbyn into some pro-EU position or another? Such an initiative requires an honest broker and so cannot afford to be contaminated by factionalism.

And there we have the mess of the People's Vote campaign. However, as Owen rightly points out to make headway at the next election, to win, Labour has to convince the people who've took part in the PV marches, may have dallied with the LibDems back in the EU election, and are unsure about which way their vote is going to land come polling day to get on board. Their objective, a second referendum, is our objective. Labour offers the hope of a mitigated Brexit and the possibility of no Brexit at all, while Johnson offers Trump furst nonsense dressed up as a national renaissance and the LibDems many wasted votes that can keep the Tories out and a no deal Brexit off the table. Labour's position is, effectively, a wedge of its own designed to peel away the mass base of the remain movement from its compromised and scheming leadership. And thanks to the shenanigans that have erupted, they might make Labour's job a bit easier.

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Sunday 27 October 2019

Election Hokey-Cokey

Politics is on a knife's edge, to that we can all agree. But there are moments when high stakes make way for high farce. And one of those moments concerns the timing of the next general election and, specifically, everything surrounding the joint wheeze of the Liberal Democrats and SNP. They plan to table a motion pencilling a poll in for 9th December. According to Jo Swinson on this morning's Andrew Marr, this ensures an election happens as soon as possible once the EU agree to the length of the coming Article 50 extension. If, as is widely expected, it's another three months and the new departure date is 31st January then the passing of this bill means Boris Johnson can't proceed with his deal. Therefore, if you happen to look at politics from the side of your eye and don't follow the ins and outs, you're likely to note all the parties are committed to a general election. The Tories want one, as does Labour, the LibDems, SNP, and even the DUP. How farcical it must appear then that one is not forthcoming.

Also on Marr, Tory party chairman, the chronically misnamed James Cleverly, said the Tories are opposed to this bill. Yes, that's right. The splashes in this Sunday's comics reveal Johnson's latest genius move is to call for a general election every day, and bringing votes under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act as many times as he can. That he hasn't seized upon the LibDem/SNP bill (yet, at least) must be brain scrambling for casual watchers. Cleverly's argument boiled down to, erm, it taking no deal off the table. Despite our departure from the EU not being nigh. Some might be tempted to think their opposition is precisely because Johnson and Cummings are preparing a master-stroke to ram the deal through, vindicating the LibDem/SNP reasoning. The truth is more banal. The Tories want an election now because the polls are in their favour, and the whole strategy is premised on being in a hurry to get Brexit done. Johnson has to be seen stretching every sinew to wriggle out from under the weight of parliament. He also knows the longer the impasse carries on, his pathetic threat of a government strike notwithstanding, the more the situation become unfavourable for him. And so he has to be seen leading the calls for the election and he must be the one who, in the public mind, initiates it. If the opposition do this instead then his strategy loses a key prop. All of a sudden, the opposition aren't looking like the ones being dragged kicking and screaming to the polls.

And so the Tories want an election, but won't vote for this. Labour wants an election, but won't vote with the Tories under the FTPA (with a number of backbenchers pursuing counter-productive strategies sure to cost them their seats, this is no surprise). And the SNP nor LibDems are about to do the same either. To the ordinary punter this must look like pure madness.

Yet why are the SNP and LibDems super keen? It was only last week SNP Commons leader Ian Blackford called the idea of a December election "absurd". What's changed? Let's just say Johnson isn't the only one feeling the cosh of the clock. For the SNP, they want an election out of the way before Alex Salmond's trial, which is due early in the new year. Given the circumstances around the investigation and the suggestion the SNP leadership did not act entirely properly with regards to it, whatever the eventual verdict the potential for severe political damage and splits are there. Readers recalling the acrimonious disintegration of the Scottish Socialist Party should have an idea of what could happen, albeit on a much bigger scale. As for the LibDems, Jo Swinson is in a hurry because of the seeming momentum behind the party - a gaggle of defections, excellent local by-election polling, a strong showing in the YouGovs of this world, record fundraising (thanks in part to the desertion of the Tories by EU-friendly capital), and major (single) issue salience. This is not going to persist forever so strike while the iron is hot, as the old saying goes.

Perhaps Johnson will relent. For him, the idea of giving Labour a good kicking while the opposition are divided and the Brexit Party seemingly quiet/neutralised must be as irresitable to him as it proved for his predecessor. It is conceivable the SNP/LibDem move might receive his blessing in the end. Though, of course, like May Johnson could live to rue the day he underestimated his opponents. After all, many of the conditions of June 2017 are still present. While it might, in my view, suit Labour to have more of a lead in to an election the party is prepared and ready to go. Either way, to have a Brexit logjam replaced by a general election logjam is untenable. It will resolve - and soon.

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Thursday 24 October 2019

Saying No to Boris Johnson's Election

Is it really so bad that we're not having a general election? Looking on Twitter earlier after Boris Johnson's latest gambit, plenty of comrades were, how shall we say, "exercised" following the announcement Labour is instructing MPs to abstain or vote against when Johnson tries bringing it to the Commons on Monday. Part of the reasoning, according to Jeremy Corbyn, is to take no deal off the table and await to see what the EU says. Rumours abound of a 31st January extension, amid briefings that Emmanuel Macron wants a more shorter time frame and this is to be the very last time. We'll see about that. If another three months is confirmed, then perhaps Labour leadership will change its mind. But I doubt it.

Why be sanguine about the prospect? I can understand the impatience of comrades who want to go out there and give the Tories a good drubbing. After all, despite what the polls say and the incuriosity of Westminster watchers re: anything other than who's shafting who this week, the underlying background to 2017's result hasn't gone away. Indeed, during two years of disempowering and dispiriting Brexit back-and-forth living standards have hardly skyrocketed, the housing crisis is still crisis-tastic, climate change is more pressing, and more clued up, disproportionately left-leaning young people have come of age. Only a knave or a fool would completely write off Labour's chances.

All the more reason to go for one now and back Johnson's move? Well, no. There's a very good reason not to, and not because the students will have gone home by the putative general election date (some of us don't close until the 20th, by the way). As we know, the Johnson/Cummings strategy is based around appearing to be in a hurry. According to the clever-clever logic of the Downing Street quantum brain, it's win-win for Johnson. He accrues the benefit of barrelling Brexit through, and the opposition are punished if they're seen to thwart his scheme. It's not an unreasonable assumption. The Johnson problem is what if they refuse to rise to the bait? It's not just Labour, remember. On this score at least, the united line of Labour, the SNP, LibDems, Plaid, Caroline Lucas, the CHUKa rump and various indies is holding. You can now probably add the DUP to the list too.

What does Johnson do then? After promising MPs more time to scrutinise the new deal if they back his election, they can have even more time should they reject it. Another dazzling Dom oversight. His alternative is the kind of petulance that saw the extension letter go to the Commission without Johnson's signature. According to one of his most loyal courtiers, the government is going on strike. Given some of the initiatives in their Queen's speech, we should be thankful for small mercies. Still, the problem Johnson has here is after so much hustle and bustle, he's now making a spectacle of himself ostentatiously falling asleep at the wheel. Everything is paused, and nothing happens. Including, perversely, his very own Brexit bill. Consider the absurdity of British politics - the passage to Brexit is getting blocked by its biggest champion.

Why is this an issue, won't the kind coverage of the press see him through? For a week or two, maybe. But if government stops we have a news vacuum, and what might it get filled with? Scrutiny of the bill could feature prominently, and other problems and emergencies are bound to crop up that demand action and the government are seen to not care/found wanting. Also, more time allows for the disgruntled Tory voter to start making eyes at the Brexit Party again. In other words, if an election isn't held the more difficulties Johnson will have holding his coalition together. Remember, smart strategy doesn't just involve winning points and decision making that enhances your position. It's about disorganising your opponent too.

Is delay the right decision? No one knows for sure, but standing back and considering our position vs the Tories, it looks like it could be.

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Wednesday 23 October 2019

The Logic of the Labour Leavers

When it comes to Labour MPs, it's wise not to place too much hope in them. This way you'll never get disappointed. So when I glanced over the list of Labour honourable members who voted with the government to give Boris Johnson's new Brexit deal its second reading, the red mist stayed well clear. It was more a sense of world weary disappointment. Nevertheless, as cathartic ranting away on social media can be, it's not entirely helpful. For one calling Labour MPs who, you hope, will eventually end up voting the right way isn't going to speed their journey to the side of the angels. Shouting scab and traitor won't make them wake up and think "you know, that @corbynmania2676491 has made a fair point." Still, I'm not about to alibi them either. This is not a counsel for shrugging the old shoulders and walking away. They need to be held to account, and as the trigger ballot process hasn't gone swimmingly that means we need to challenge them politically.

There are three hills our Brexit-enabling comrades are choosing to die on. The first is their fidelity to the 2017 manifesto. How many times have you heard Caroline Flint, someone not averse to crapping on the class she came from, utter words similar to this? Yes, in 2017 Labour did say it would honour Brexit by seeking a sensible deal. Fast forward to now, it mustn't have escaped Caroline's notice but there is a Tory government in office, and the deal Johnson has negotiated with the EU reflects their priorities and interests. We also have a better idea what the cost of a no deal Brexit would be, and what Johnson's deal means for workers' rights and the NHS. Why else remove them from the legal document, placed their by May, to the airy fairy rhetoric of the political declaration? When the facts change, minds should change. Not only is Caroline saying Labour MPs should support the government as it kicks our people in the teeth (nothing new for her), but she's also suggesting we must ditch our electoral coalition too. Thanks, but no thanks.

The second, and most popularly cited, is obeying the will of their constituents. Remember, it wasn't very long ago that the most beloved of all Labour-held constituencies, Stoke-on-Trent Central, was deemed the capital of Leave and attracted no less a figure than the be-tweeded clown prince of Brexit, Paul Nuttall, to the Potteries. A fair enough (but wrong) argument if putting one's constituents first comes from a principled place. But let's have a look at the list again. On there we see Lisa Nandy, Melanie Onn, Jon Cruddas, Ruth Smeeth, Dan Jarvis, and a number of others who supported Owen Smith's leadership campaign in 2016. As going for a second referendum was the central plank of his pitch scant weeks after the EU referendum vote, where was the precious will of their constituents then? It's a wonder these clowns can even spell the word 'principled'.

But the meat and gravy against this argument is in most cases, despite their constituencies voting leave, the Labour vote was much more remainy. Therefore we're in classic triangulation territory, but one much more likely to end up in their defeat than victory. For instance, the process of corrosion in Labour's so-called traditional seats has been long-term and persistent. It is a structural characteristic exacerbated by years of having their loyalty taken for granted, and one blanket campaigning cannot fix. Again, as the Stoke Central by-election demonstrated with its reduced majority and a plurality for the parties of the right - the Tories and UKIP. One of the key drivers is the collapsing composition of the old class loyalties and the communal solidarities they engendered, exacerbated by the individuating consequences of being a pensioner. In all essentials, a de-classing and petit-bourgeoisification of the outlook of millions of retirees. You knock on their doors and they'll say they've always been a Labour voter, but this often means not for the last three or four general elections. These people are lost, and aren't about to award a Brexit stand made by their Labour MP by voting for them. Meanwhile, as Labour's awful EU election result showed, our support largely stayed at home and those who didn't lent their votes in protest to the Greens and the LibDems (the LibDems!). Not all these voters will pay close attention to the Brexity antics of their Labour MP, but enough of them might and in tight marginals this is support Labour can't easily dispense with. If this bears out, and I suspect it will, locally Crewe will return to the Tories and for the first time in its history, Stoke-on-Trent might become an entirely Conservative city.

And the final argument is one that cropped up again during "Super" Saturday and last night's second reading vote: Johnson's deal must be supported if it means avoiding a no deal Brexit. Lo and behold, despite grumblings and a bit of will-he/won't-he from the centrist hero in the Élysée Palace, Johnson's request to extend Article 50 to 31st January is virtually certain to be granted. As Donald Tusk, Michel Barnier, and Jean-Claude Juncker have intimated enough times, no deal will be the UK's choice, not the EU's. Why? They want to see continuity and stability, and are allergic to the ERG fantasy of the world's greatest tax haven arriving on Europe's doorstep. The no deal excuse for backing any old bobbins Johnson brings to the table doesn't hold water. It's less an argument and more a body swerve, an ostentatious ducking of the politics of their consequences by pleading urgent pragmatism. Cynical in some cases. Dismal in all.

Would pushing these arguments in your local CLP meeting change your MP's mind? Probably not. Their course is plugged in, and for those who've sailed through their trigger ballots they can effectively forget about pleasing the membership. But it helps raise the level, as they say, of the political understanding of everyone present. Much better this than angry ranting. And it also reminds the MP they might not be triggered now, but they do need a campaign team. If they carry on in this vein, many of the members could choose to spend their election campaigning for Labour candidates elsewhere. If a Labour MP can't stand up for our people during the Brexit process, what use would they be in the future?

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Monday 21 October 2019

Another Day, Another Brexit Delay

It's pretty certain we won't be leaving the European Union at Hallowe'en now. John Bercow's knocking back of the government's second attempt to get the Johnson deal through the Commons could be seen coming a mile off, so you have to wonder why the Tories even bothered to try. With the passing of Oliver Letwin's amendment on so-called super Saturday, parliamentary approval (or otherwise) of the Brexit plan has been delayed until the requisite legislation is in place. Only then can the deal can be passed into law. This was animated by rumours put about last week that ERG headbangers were prepared to swallow the meaningful vote and then rebel so its implementation falls, causing the UK to tumble into a no deal Brexit on the 31st. In truth, in Johnson's premiership the ERG have pretty much got all they've wanted but in these bonkers times, one can never be too sure.

Why then is Johnson still in a massive hurry? It's pretty certain we're not leaving on the 31st. And it's more or less foregone that the EU will accept an extension to Article 50. After all, one thing the Brexiteers were right about was how German manufacturers have an interest in coming to a sensible arrangement with the UK. With jitters about the world economy's outlook, on the EU side they're not about to plunge willingly into a no deal scenario that could catalyse capital's next global heart attack. Plus there's the politics to consider. They might be weary of the Tories, but they know, one day, the UK is very likely to want back in. Nothing would damage the EU's standing more here if it's seen to egregiously screw over the country. And right now, we have the largest pro-EU movement of any EU member state - it's more in the interest of the EU to cultivate this as a means of fostering and stabilising the UK as a good neighbour and a future constructive full member. And if they don't, well, the UK can be much more of a nuisance as a no deal tax haven 21 miles off its shores.

Anyway, back to the matter at hand. Sadly, there's no dying in a ditch to be had from any Conservative politician, let alone the Prime Minister. Johnson's epistolary antics received very favourable write-ups in the Tory press over the weekend, and chances are all but the most Faragist of the Brexit-minded won't hold him responsible for complying with a law forced on him by the remoaner parliament. Which is way the theatrics were staged in the first place. But why is he still acting as if he's in a hurry? We're not leaving any time soon. You know it, he knows it. I'm afraid Dominic Cummings's clever, clever tactics are in play again.

Since the earliest days of the otherwise boring leadership contest, Johnson's shtick has been the populist people vs parliament gambit. The sheer recklessness of his pronouncements and inevitable chaotic defeats have been set up with this in mind. With a supine press plugged directly into the unhinged base, and a broadcast media that thinks regurgitating "Downing Street sources" counts as reportage, Johnson knows his messaging will resonate among his people. And so while everything was imploding and the new government teetered on the brink, chaos trickster Cummings could affect his 'everything's going to plan' zen because, in his scheme, it was. Johnson tries to get parliament off his back, and is set back by the Benn Act. He goes for a general election and he is denied. He comes back to the Commons having negotiated a Theresa May re-spray with the EU, and the Brexit express is derailed by MPs and the Speaker. And now at the mercy of amendments galore, the successful attachment of a second referendum (unlikely) or a UK-wide customs union-based Brexit (somewhat more likely) amendment means Johnson pulls the whole thing and goes for a general election again. Setting himself up to be thwarted is the game.

As noted at the time, the Tory result at the last election was built in a polarised fashion around getting Brexit done, and scaremongering about Jeremy Corbyn's plans to collectivise Wetherspoon's. Johnson's election strategy is exactly the same, hoping being seen to be zealous and getting frustrated at every turn will provoke a backlash and turn out his otherwise declining electorate in greater numbers than anyone else. But the hurry is not entirely affected. The longer Johnson has to wait for an election, the greater the chance the split in the opposition will either soften, or become more tactical come polling day. And the second is the more Johnson's deal is exposed to public scrutiny, the more the awfulness of this class war document comes out into the open and his opponents can develop their critique. We saw in 2017 how vulnerable the Tories were to a class-based critique and how Labour connected to those interests hitherto excluded from mainstream politics. With the excluded growing by the day and Johnson's base shrinking, time is a ticking for a strategy based on radicalised pensioners.

Such is the risk of the Cummings strategy. On the face of it delay plays into the Tories' hands, but the longer it goes on the more matters could unravel and the likelihood of a famous Tory defeat goes up. There is nothing to be gained from being hasty in this instance.

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Sunday 20 October 2019

Carl Cox - I Want You (Forever)

Spent the evening writing for a venerable publication, which means music time for you peoples. And how about getting treated to (possibly) the greatest rave track ever produced?

The Terminator for the MegaDrive/Genesis

The new installment, Terminator: Dark Fate is due imminently so it's a good time to return to the original and, more specifically, its video game outing on Sega's monster machine. Released in 1992 in the wake of Terminator 2's box office triumph, 16-bit programming superstar, David Perry and friends, managed to make a video game out of a film you would think is un-adaptable. At least according to the terms of the day. There's one baddy and a lot of killing, but it's the titular cyborg that offs anyone in its way and jolly old Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese aren't in much of a position to stop it. Not a premise that might lend itself to a game, unless you played the terminator itself. And so in the best traditions of the day they made an action platformer and slapped a licence on it. Though, to be fair, The Terminator does not suffer from a lack of thought. It manages to follow the plot of the film in its own idiosyncratic way.

At this point in the film franchise's life, one of the more beguiling aspects of the Terminator films were the very brief flash forwards to the post-apocalyptic machine-infested future. And so to set the first level in this future was a good choice and a nod to the fans. The second smart choice was to have you set upon by the giant tank droid famous for crushing human skulls in the flicks. Armed only with grenades, it's a simple enough battle but one immediately suggesting there lies goodly things within - and it looked very compelling in the TV campaign and on GamesMaster. Once you get inside Skynet's base your passage through the tunnels is blocked by a never-ending supply of terminators. And you, a mere flesh and blood human, shrugs off the hail of bullets as if you were Arnie himself. Thankfully health drops from the ceiling at regular intervals, demonstrating the programmers knew it was too hard but couldn't be arsed to go back and adjust enemy spawning. Eventually you acquire a gun and plough through the terminators with ease. You locate Skynet's core, blow it up and make your way to the next stage.

The ensuing cut scene establishes you've passed through the time hole into 1984, and you have to locate Sarah Connor before the terminator does. This means making your way through some light platforming while avoiding the attentions of bomb-throwing thugs and the LAPD's finest. One curious design decision here was, despite your being armed with a shot gun (and it sounds really meaty as well), the thugs perish as you blow them away but the cops are merely rendered unconscious. It takes four blasts to fell them, then they get up and come after you again. I suppose as the film has the terminator massacring coppers, which is obviously a Very Bad Thing, then you as the goodie can't be seen to do the same. Nor, for that matter, are there many games, certainly at the time, that allowed you to shoot up the police. One of the reasons why the original Grand Theft Auto and, to a lesser extent, Driver proved controversial. Anyway, you make it through the two sub levels to the Tech Noir club to face off against the terminator. Blast him enough and you're able to get past him to rescue Sarah. The next stage is the police station. You break out of your cell and have to race to the top of the station, facing off against the same bomb-throwing goons, the fuzz and, of course, the terminator itself. Please note it departs from the film by not shooting any police. Like the lead up to the club scene the level is quite linear. And then we're in the factory, where the terminator has had all its flesh burned off and its out to get you. This means it spawns fairly randomly whenever it disappears off the screen, but as long as you keep it walking/crawling behind Reese you can lead it straight into the compactor. Terminator terminated.

Sounds like a simple game? Yes. And a short one? Definitely. If you know what you're doing, it takes about 15-20 minutes start to finish. That was unforgivably short by 1992 standards, and one of the reasons why it was panned. The game was passable (indeed, teenage me would regularly return to it precisely because it was a short burst of undemanding action), there just wasn't enough of it - especially for the £34.99 price tag. This reflected the contrasts in the game. At one level it was clever and thought through, appealing to Terminator fans and showing the film due fidelity. On the whole Kyle Reese was well-animated, which was a hallmark of all Perry's 16-bit work. But in other bits, there was a certain shoddiness. The lay out of the second level was pretty unimaginative and the distinct lack of enemy types didn't help, and the spawning on the first stage was ludicrous. Reaching the end of a stage meant a jarring transportation to the score summary screen, and yes, the lack of content is a big issue - unless you're of the sort who likes playing the same competent action-platformer over and over. The fact this was put on a four megabit cartridge and its corners are far from smooth suggest this was a quick money grab, of churning something out that appeared technically proficient and swish to catch the T2 backwash and hit the market before the T2 games landed on home formats. And it worked. The Terminator troubled the charts for months and was a commercial success, and Perry carried his upward trajectory to bigger and more lavish projects.

What to make of this game almost 30 years on. Well, it's not one that often appears on YouTube MegaDrive retrospectives despite the hype it got at the time. In the UK at least. It was turned out as a cash grab, and as such was entirely forgettable.

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Saturday 19 October 2019

Rereading Reading Capital

Re-reading Reading Capital was an unexpected delight. When I first sat down with this book 17 or 18 years ago, each page was scoured over meticulously with a determination to unspool the meaning of Althusser's tightly-wound prose. It got to the ludicrous point of amassing a pile of notes for the first third of the book greater even than the hefty wedge I recently turned out while reading actual Capital. Coming back to Reading Capital many years later and after much practice reading difficult social theory, I found ploughing through something of a (semi-masochistic) pleasure. It also came with a surprising bonus.

There is a regrettable tendency on the left these days to dismiss Althusser's contributions to Marxism. A part-cancellation part down to the murderous circumstances of his final breakdown, but also because of the sustained and withering polemic over his oeuvre - not helped by some of his more high profile disciples, at least on these shores, going down the controversial highways and by-ways of post-structuralism and outright obscurantism. Nevertheless, Althusser's raison d'etre, his problematic, was a sound enough intellectual enterprise. That is setting out to demonstrate what is unique and specific about Marxism versus mainstream social science, philosophy and, above all, political economy. His second objective is inextricable from the first: an examination and the subsequent isolation and removal of the residues of bourgeois philosophy lingering on in Marxism. These hangovers serve to cloud rather than elucidate the concepts necessary for a scientific enquiry into the dynamics and laws governing capitalist societies - or social formations, in Althusser-speak.

This enterprise debuted in For Marx, setting out what a non-humanistic (anti-humanist) and non-essentialised Marxism should look like. Here, Althusser focused particularly on Marx's relationship with Hegel and through a close philosophical reading of key texts made the case that dialectics and materialism in Marx was a much more involved affair than simply standing Hegel the right way up. Similar to other French structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers of the time, Hegel's philosophy was attacked for, ultimately, offering a simplistic and metaphysical approach to history. Here, history in all essentials is the unfolding of the principle of reason through fits and bursts, but with a clear upward trajectory to an end point where, effectively, history as Hegel understands it has come to an end and reason triumphs. This metaphysics has found various ways into Marxism, via Promethean/humanist iterations of Marx (history as the becoming realisation of humanity's species-being), its mechanical opposite (history animated by economic or technological determinism), or history as the inevitable realisation of communism proceeding to this end point through a series of ever more progressive modes of production. For Althusser, these Marxisms operated with 'expressive totalities' - at any point a social formation was an expression of some essentialised underlying principle. For Althusser, this emphatically was not Marx's method. Turning to his 'mature works' - the volumes of Capital, Critique of the Gotha Programme, the notes assembled as Theories of Surplus Value, and various marginalia. Here we find no principles animating the movement of history. Instead we find societies structured in particular ways owing to the patterning of class struggle, the mode of exploitation, strength, extent and relationships between institutions, the mode of production and its conjunctural hybridity/residuum of preceding modes, and so on. In short, social formations are complex but knowable.

Althusser's second argument was one for the real geeks, but nevertheless bound up with the above. Marx himself wasn't always a Marxist. His earlier works were radical but were irredeemably Hegelian and abounded with humanist concepts and essentialisms. It was philosophical and obviously pre-scientific. Or ideological, in Althusser's rendering. For instance, Althusser located Marx's famous 1844 Paris Manuscripts and their treatment of and polemic against alienation as a work condemning capitalism for the way it estranged humans from their essential humanity, which was a thoroughly woolly notion. However, during 1846 Marx, with Engels, wrote The German Ideology, a polemic against their philosophical contemporaries. For the first time their materialist conception of history was outlined and there was no room for metaphysical props. Still, while a vital breakthrough Althusser argues neither Marx nor Engels fully articulated their novel approach in philosophical terms. What was distinctive was buried in the operationalisation of (not fully articulated) concepts, notes or asides in their work, remarks in the voluminous correspondence between them and other thinkers and activists they exchanged letters with. Marx never wrote a book about Marx's method.

This was the meat and gravy of Althusser's project. He was concerned with rescuing the specificity of Marx's contribution from under the weight of misinterpretation and distortion, and set it out in stark terms. Doing so would aid theoretical clarity and demonstrate its superiority versus the ideologies passing for bourgeois thought.

Reading Capital is a continuation of this project. For instance, one of the particularly valuable and oft-overlooked contributions here is Althusser's discussion of time. As the social is positioned as an expressive totality by idealist philosophy and political economy, making an analytical intervention at any point in history amounts to an 'essential section'. i.e. That point in time reduces events and occurrences to expressions of the underlying metaphysic of history. Therefore time is simple, linear, and uniform. Contrast this to the Marxist approach to time. Because capitalism is complex, and because all capitalist social formations are complex articulations of struggles and institutions, time itself is complex and multiple. To demonstrate, while all businesses depend on their circuit of capital to successfully complete (the advance of capital, its transformation into commodities by setting the means of production and labour power into motion, and then the value locked up in these commodities getting realised at the point of sale, returning the investment plus surplus value to the capitalist), the speed this takes place at varies from firm to firm, and industry to industry. Therefore it assumes at times compressed, at times elastic and elongated properties depending on conjunctural and specific circumstances. Likewise, the velocity of exploitation differs from the speed of politics and the pace of ideologies. The 'time' of the labour movement - its consolidation and progress to class consciousness differs from the 'time' it takes capital to become conscious of its own interests, for instance.

This is illustrative of Althusser's chief thesis in Reading Capital and For Marx. The difference between idealist philosophy and classical political economy versus Marx's work isn't a matter of interpretation, of viewing the same object (capitalist political economy) from differing perspectives, but of looking at separate things entirely. The thought-object of Adam Smith is not the thought-object of Karl Marx. This for Althusser is why Capital is so difficult for mainstream economists - they try reading their object into the books and are troubled when their suppositions don't find an echo there, but their obviousness is challenged.

To demonstrate, classical political economy emphasises distribution and subordinates production and consumption to it, while assuming the social field this takes place in is homogenous and measurable (hence the difficulties bourgeois economics has with surplus value, because it is "invisible" and the product of a process of exploitation that passes it by entirely). Second, economics rests on an 'anthropology of needs'. That capitalist economic activity, from the buying and selling of commodities to the buying and selling of labour, is premised on need. And if an economy meets all needs, there is a tendency to equilibrium and harmony.

Marx trashes this woolly nonsense. He divides need into two 'departments' - department I is the production of the conditions of production, of capital selling to other capitals, and department II, or individual consumption. Therefore not all needs are made equal nor are they qualitatively the same. Secondly, not only is department II historicised, i.e. individual consumption changes over time, only those needs that are economically affective tend to be met. There is an urgent need to address food shortages for human beings, but the commercial imperative ensures millions of dogs get their Pedigree Chum while people starve. None of this is a product of human nature, but a characteristic of production for accumulation - the historically contingent, transitory, but nevertheless real structural imperatives of capitalism. Therefore the destruction of 'naive' needs anthropology entails the destruction of political economy itself, and a new theoretical object that is entirely separate and anti-humanist:

The true subjects (in the sense of constitutive subjects of the process) are therefore not these occupants or functionaries [of entrepreneurs, managers, workers] but the definition, distribution of their places and functions. The true 'subjects' are these definers and distributors: the relations of production. (p.180)

For Althusser, this leads to a number of important conclusions about Marx's approach to capitalism, his theoretical object. The economic is not a given, and so its concept has to be articulated by specifying what constitutes the economic, how this in turn is incarnated in its mode of production, its relation to the social whole, the specificities and efficacy of the political, economic, and so on. In other words, how the concept has to be alive, nuanced, and consistently renovated. Second, where Marxism eschews conceptual formalisation it leads to confusion, error, and all the nasties Althusser warned against. And third, linear causality is dumped. It is always structural, complex, and requires careful elaboration.

Althusser's observations on the gulf between political economy and Marx, and Marx's relationship with his forebears may have attracted much criticism, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Neoclassical and Keynesian economics proceed as if Marx never happened, and little if anything has appeared in mainstream economics that has seriously disturbed Marxist critiques of political economy. And this is a separation in which the different theoretical objects of each are materialised in academic departments and journals.

And the surprising bonus spoken of near the top of this post? It helped clarify my own approach to politics. Establishment commentators have often had it in the neck here for their stupidity, ignorance, and all the rest of it, and this lies in the complete absence of not treating politics as social relations. In other words, they have a faulty conception of what politics is. A true enough if banal observation. However, applying the same analysis to politics that Althusser excavated from Marx's critique of political economy and it is pretty obvious there is a qualitative difference between the gossip mongery and the parliament-centric output of political journalism and its academic corollary in political science. This world of difference lies in the fact that we do not have the same object. They are constructing and analysing a mystification, whereas the materialist analysis of politics embeds it fully within its context, characterised by the effectivity of other structures on it, its constitution by and constitution of class relationships, the struggles of sections and factions, and the sometimes rude intrusion of masses of new people - to give it an uncut rendering. Marxism is sometimes criticised for not having a political theory, in the same sense conservatism and liberalism has one. Well, it's obvious that it does and it can be seen in every critique it makes of bourgeois politics. It's just that its theory cannot be abstracted as a set of free floating principles. Though just as Althusser lamented the fact Marx never wrote his philosophy book and set down in explicit detail what separated his discoveries from what went before, perhaps a 'politics' book for Marxism should be written for the same reasons.

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Thursday 17 October 2019

Politics after the New Brexit Deal

The summer seems like a million years ago now, but of Boris Johnson's no deal bombast I remember writing that if he does manage to get a deal with Brussels, it would be a respray of Theresa May's efforts. Well, Johnson has indeed struck a deal. And he managed to plagiarise chunks of the previous deal, but making it much worse. We've seen the outline of of what he was aiming for, but what did he get?

In the new text, the entirety of the UK leaves the EU's customs union. This, readers will recall, was one of the big draws of Brexit: the idea we could be free to swashbuckle our way around the world piling up lucrative trade deals and leaving our former EU partners in the dust. In reality, it's the effective subordination of the country's economic health to electorally expedient photo opps. However, one part of the UK - Northern Ireland, naturally - only appears to be outside of the customs union. In practice, it remains within it. Effectively, the new customs border between the north and the republic is a fiction because the border moves into the Irish Sea. Goods coming into the north will be checked, and duty paid on anything at risk of ending up in the Irish republic. The BBC has a helpful explainer. Effectively, the UK has turned itself into the border guard for the EU, under EU supervision and subject to the European Court of Justice. Taking back control, you say? These arrangements, including the north's alignment with the EU single market on some VAT rules are still subject to periodic vote by the Northern Ireland Assembly, but between Johnson's proposals and these negotiations the veto wielded by any community has been done away with. Continuation with or reversion back to UK rules is now by a simple majority vote of Assembly members. Everything else from May's deal is kept.

Therefore, it's still awful. Remember, this is an insurance policy if these arrangements are not superseded by the coming trade deal with the EU, but whatever we end up with it's not going to be what the UK has now, and it is the Tories who are negotiating it. Therefore the hard Brexiteer's dream of a tax haven off the north western coast of Europe walks the earth again. Their enthusiastic welcome of regulatory divergence only means one thing: the considerable costs of Brexit are due to get offloaded onto us. Behind the legalese and boring technocracy, there is a plan, a class war plan to make us pay - and the EU, that nice Mr Barnier and the nicer Mr Juncker, are complicit. Keir Starmer gets it, and Jeremy Corbyn has announced Labour's opposition to this tawdry document. Despite this, what are the chances Johnson can rely on opposition votes to get it through the Commons on Saturday? If scabbing on the interests of our class and opening Britain up to a deregulation bonanza doesn't move would-be rebels, perhaps remembrance of Jo Cox will. It is less than a month since Boris Johnson mocked MP's concerns about their safety and tried annexing her to the hard Brexit cause. As voting for the deal means empowering the most disgusting and morally bankrupt creature to have occupied Downing Street for decades, we'll soon see how well her memory is kept. And if after all that, if even a residue of solidarity and compassion doesn't do the job, the threat of the removal of the whip might. Now is not the time for prevarication. The moment requires steel.

And everywhere else? Andrew Bridgen, the hard Brexit bell wether (readers might be tempted to substitute 'wether' for another word) tendered his capitulation live on Channel Four. "It looks like Brexit and smells like Brexit - that's Brexit for me" chuntered this pathetic hobbit. With leading ERG supporters in the cabinet, and their "principled" opposition of the last year, the speechifying about the sanctity of the union, and attacks on May's deal for detaching Northern Ireland now forgotten, all of this was for absolutely nothing. Well, not entirely nothing. Their unhinged opposition has successfully transformed the Tory party into an English nationalist outfit and it's the cracked priorities of the hard right now hegemonising matters. The split in the core Tory constituency is resolving in favour of the complete rout of EU-oriented business and finance and the consolidation of the most backward and socially regressive sections of capital.

Yet, mark my words, most of the ex-Tory "rebels" are going to submit to this. There are significant differences between the factions of the boss class, but few if any of our independent Tories are troubled by the bonfire of the regulations this shoddy document promises. Dismantling the pathetic workers' protections we have, opening the NHS to more profit-taking, the tearing up of food standards, Johnson's Trump-first Brexit doesn't alter things for them. As long as the old class relations keep chugging, they'll reconcile themselves to the new set up eventually. Johnson might even give them the whip back as a thank you for publicly demonstrating how thin their opposition was.

The only schadenfreude to be had here is about the sorry position the DUP are in. Understandably, Johnson's deal is unacceptable to them. They are unionists after all, and the disappearance of their veto means the disappearance of their reason to exist. There's stitching up, but the DUP's erstwhile allies on the Tory right have filleted them like a kipper. The DUP were too willing to confer the Bakers, the Bridgens, and the Moggs a patriotic fig leaf only to find their concerns now fall on deaf ears. Johnson has reasoned, and it might well turn out to be the case, that he doesn't need their votes any more and we can get back to Westminster business-as-usual in forgetting about Northern Ireland and its politics. However the vote falls, may the DUP's slide into marginalisation be lingering and painful for all concerned.

And there we have the state of play. Brexit on a knife edge, the making and breaking of Boris Johnson in the balance, the possibility of heading off a new tranche of attacks on our people. What happens on Saturday could set the tone and the character of our politics for a generation. Time for some serious thinking and for would-be Labour rebels to examine their consciences, and make their mind up about what side they're on.

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Tuesday 15 October 2019

Against Stitch-Ups

About five minutes after my joining the Labour Party, our sitting MP announced he wouldn't be running in the 2010 general election. As Stoke Central's constituency party had also just got placed in special measures, the selection process was taken over entirely by the NEC. They drew up a credible long list of local notables, activists and outsiders. And when it came to the short listing, it was Tristram Hunt and two also-rans specifically selected for that purpose. Tristram walked it, of course. What an introduction to the cynicism and chicanery that had the run of the Labour Party back then.

Almost 10 years later, you might ask what has changed? Now, instead of red princes and favoured sons of the Labour right getting a leg up in the selection process, luminaries of the Labour left are in receipt of helpful hands from above. Suddenly the new politics are looking very much like the old politics.

I'm no shrinking violet when it comes to sharp practices. They are inevitable in any organisation, not just politics. When interests clash with interests the counter briefing, the back stab, and the shafting are going to happen. For instance, when it looked like Tom Watson was in trouble, my tear ducts were as dry as my laughter as the stitcher-in-chief so very nearly became the stitched. How humiliating it must have been to have got saved only by Jeremy Corbyn's intervention, though he's never going to show his gratitude or act as if he owes the Labour leader a debt of honour. Political struggle and democratic victories are infinitely preferable, and in my view reaching for administrative mechanisms is an absolute last resort when nothing else is possible. It is subordinate to, and not a substitute for politics.

To find the left finessing seat after seat speaks both to Corbynism's strength and weakness. Strong, because Labour First - former purveyors of and beneficiaries of fixed selections - are reduced to begging signatures for a petition against rigged selections. Their marginalisation from the party machine is such that this is the only avenue open to them. A fitting fate for such an awful organisation. Corbynism is now the master of the central party machine, and making it known this is now the case. And yet it is also a symptom of weakness. As we have seen with the trigger ballots, the membership have so far proven unreliable. Or, to put it more subtly, it's simply not mobilising in numbers to turf out awful MPs who deserve turfing out. The success of Jess Phillips last week being a case in point. Without the work being done to prepare the ground, Momentum pointedly not mobilising for trigger meetings, and a membership shell shocked and cynical following two years of demobilisation and demoralisation as elite politics has asserted itself again over movement politics, is anyone really surprised? And so without a mass appetite for reselections, most members are staying home - and those who are turning up are buying the pragmatism of now-is-not-the-time. Bureaucratic selections then are a symptom of weakness. If an active movement of members can't do the job, then despotic but enlightened administrative moves it is.

The problem is going all stitchy compromises the left's image, and feeds cynicism and nihilism. And to go all out as these selections are doing risks alienating others hitherto supportive of the Corbyn project. It's not just right wingers getting the cold shoulder, local lefts without the impeccable connections are facing the squeeze out too. And what happens when, say, a favourite of the Unite machine gets a seat thanks to the bureaucratic exclusion of a Unison nominee? Nothing good. It's a recipe for the division and balkanisation of the left, and one that could cost us in the long run. Is this price for redressing the balance in the parliamentary party really worth paying?

Monday 14 October 2019

On the Fake Queen's Speech

It's just as well the Queen wasn't wearing the proper crown. After all, it wasn't a proper Queen's speech. Instead, thanks to Boris Johnson's disposal of his majority, what we were treated to was Queen-fronted party political broadcast on behalf of the Tory party. Which, despite its being a silly stunt in the grand scheme of things did furnish one service: it showed us what the next Conservative manifesto is going to be. Useful.

The big ticket item of course, is Brexit. But with talks ongoing based on the current plan, we'll no doubt return to that soon enough. The second eye-catching item were Johnson's police and crime proposals. Ever-playing to the racist gallery, there are hefty new penalties for deportees who return to the UK, more protections for the police and tougher sentencing. It could be the Tories in the 90s, or New Labour under Blair. Tough talk is perceived as popular, so giving criminals no quarter is always the smart political choice. What works always, always comes a distant second. There is to be some tinkering with the railway franchise model too, some laws on patient safety and drugs trials (including implementing Theresa May's inadequate mental health plan), some more moving of the furniture when it comes to adult social care, more powers for mayors in England, more regulation of high rise residentials, and the controversial plans on voter ID. Colour me inspired.

Nothing more demonstrates the cynicism in play here than the last proposal. Voter fraud is so prevalent that one person was convicted of it after the 2017 general election. The Tories know well that those not as likely to possess photo ID of the sort they have in mind - a passport, a driver's license - happen to be people more inclined to vote Labour. Young people, poorer people, minority ethnicities, instead of doing the hard yards and actually appealing to younger voters and those not well disposed to Johnson's Conservatives, it's simply easier to make them entirely inconsequential. A good job then an election stands between proposal and implementation.

As for the rest, calling this an "ambitious" programme does nothing to repair the Prime Minister's casual relationship with the truth. It is, essentially, dull. Not even the customary bombast is present, the scenes of dug up streets to pipe in full fibre broadband - gone. The battery factories, electric cars, nuclear fusion reactors, space elevators, and anti-matter rocket motors all absent. And even where there is policy that, at a stretch, could be described as an improvement it's barely a shuffle forward. A NHS crisis and a looming winter beds cataclysm, and we're talking about extra drugs trials? The collapse of adult social services and councils are being allowed to raise a pittance to try and make good? Truly we're in the Chris Leslie 'give zero contract workers advance notice of shift cancellations' territory of dismal policy making.

This then is obviously a plan aimed at the Tory core vote. Get Brexit done, appear to do something about the NHS and social care (for older people), and stick the boot in on sundry undesirables. After all, a bit of vicarious brutality never hurt anyone. Bold and ambitious? Not in the slightest. But what it might be suggesting is a roll out of the Australia strategy. Don't promise a great deal, and spend your campaign poking holes in the extensive programme offered by your opponents. Being a little bit racist won't hurt your chances either.

The problem with this is steady-as-she-goes is at cross purposes to the disruption Johnson has over-promised with regard to Brexit, his wrecking ball approach, and his own "exuberance". This programme is about shoring up the loyalists and the Brexiteers, has no broad appeal and, even less, doesn't even try to disrupt and disorganise his opponents. True, the Tories might not think they have to as they've got Brexit to rely on. No doubt the Einstein of Downing Street thinks so, but when the election comes it will be after the almost inevitable Article 50 extension. Matters then get much stickier for Johnson's chances with a strengthened Brexit Party menacing him from the sidelines.