Thursday 31 December 2020

Top Ten Dance Songs 2020

Time for 2020's final act on this here blog: the unveiling of the hottest sounds the last 12 months have to offer. Unavoidably, just like the top 100 of the 2010s, it's the nostalgic sounds that have squeezed the juice this year. Seeing the yoof plunder the oldies is good for us, um, oldies. Before we go there, a couple of honourable mentions to a pair of tunes who just missed the cut - Hypnotized by Purple Disco Machine and Sophie and the Giants, and Torn by Hemstock & Mercurial Virus are well, well worth your time.

With the preliminaries done, onto the main event.

10. Never Give Up by Mathame
9. Jerusalema by Master KG feat. Nomcebo Zikode
8. Universal Love by Cosmic Gate
7. I Love You by Key4050 & Plumb
6. House Arrest by SOFI TUKKER & Gorgon City
5. They Know by Ed Butler
4. I Need Your Loving by Jorn van Deynhoven & Sue McLaren
3. Ithaka by Shedona & Anna Lee
2. Rush by Will Atkinson

I'm sure it's no accident uplifting affairs rule the roost after a terrible pig of a year, and there are many good and positive vibes in this list: Afro-gospel, party hard house, and some of the best euphoric trance seen since the turn of the century. No exaggeration. And then there is the number one. What can I say? Rare are the occasions these days when a track instantly gets under my skin and demands another listen, then another and another. Inspiration for this comes from an even earlier golden age. Seriously, you could head to a warehouse in 1991 and this monster would slot seamlessly in. Enough words, time for tune of the year.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

The Most Read 20 of 2020

Well, this year was a bit of a surprise and not in a good way. At the beginning of 2020 Boris Johnson was the master of all he surveyed, having seen off the liberal wing of Toryism and the bothersome lefties in the Labour Party. And as the year draws to a close, his Brexit deal is in the can and he looks as unassailable as ever. Just don't talk about the 70-odd thousand dead. It says everything about the client relationship the media has with the government and, yes, the inability of the opposition to do opposition that the Tories have got away with this. We'll see how Johnson and his cronies manage in 2021 without the shield of Brexit but, I suspect, tickety-boo is the unwelcome and unpalatable answer.

Still, the wheels of history grind on and your humble scribe was in situ trying to make sense of it all. What, according to the discerning eyes of this blog's readers, caught their fancy the most during 2020? In the chart no one asked for, here's what set the Google servers aflame.

1. The Problems with Jess Phillips
2. Why do the Tories Want to Cut Furlough Payments?
3. The Weakness of Starmerism
4. The Miserable Collapse of Jess Phillips
5. Keir Starmer's Falkirk Moment
6. Why do the Tories Hate the Arts?
7. Priti Patel, the Tories, and the Death Penalty
8. A Cultural Sociology of Mass Stupidity
9. Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud
10. The Left and Keir Starmer
11. John McDonnell: Be Nice to Keir
12. Obligation and Class Consciousness
13. Stoke's Racist Lord Mayor
14. Losing Long-Time Labour Members
15. On Jeremy Corbyn's Defence Fund
16. The Moral Turpitude of Cllr Ally Simcock
17. Labour and the New Working Class
18. Why I've Left the Labour Party
19. The Silences of John Harris
20. The Demonology of Jeremy Corbyn

Ugh, Jess Phillips dominates with the number one and four spots respectively. If I was the unscrupulous sort driven by numbers and attention she'd feature here more regularly because there is a ready audience for our Jess. Seriously, some people need better hobbies. And for the rest? Why, Labour-on-Labour commentary does well as per, but again it always pleases to see my hobby horse - the Tories - attract the numbers. Bodes well for the book (due to hit the shelves next September in time for party conference season, plug, plug).

No predictions beyond a confident forecast about this place being here this time next year with a few hundred more posts under the belt. But while eyes are cast backwards, how about a few posts falling short of the top 20? Let's take another look the Tories' sovereignty fetish, seeing as Brexit is filling the headlines. What is this concept about? Why are the Tories so attached to it? The mythology grown up around it are unceremoniously shoved aside here. The next selection, also on the Tories, is how they are winning the necropolitics of Covid-19. I.e. They have successfully neutralised the politics of pandemic (mis)management and over 70,000 deaths by blaming them on bad luck and a deficit of individual responsibility, when their containment strategy was half-arsed from the beginning and has caused many thousands to die. Lastly, this revisit advice wouldn't be complete without a chin stroker, and filling this role in 2020 are Some Rules for a Militant Political Science. I do fancy writing something lengthy and theoretical about "the politics", but with the book almost out the way, other projects hovering and a lot of work coming up at work, we're going to have to see. This should provide something of a taster, mind.

And there we have it, the horror show of 2020 is almost over. Hopefully 2021 will be much better for all of us personally and politically, but the last five years' worth of ups and downs suggests heading into any new year with preconceptions and expectations is a foolish endeavour. Don't worry comrades, the going does get good sometimes and as long as we breathe, there is hope.

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Tuesday 29 December 2020

The Labour Politics of Backing the Brexit Deal

The Commons returns on Wednesday to ratify or reject Boris Johnson's Brexit deal. The SNP have said they're voting against because it's a bad deal, albeit forgetting their suggestions of any deal being better than no deal of a couple of weeks ago. Still, they have a pro-EU base to satisfy and refusing to go along with the Tories gives the independence cause more wedge, as if it was needed. Their u-turn isn't a matter of unprincipled politics, it's entirely conditioned by their political project. Perhaps we should keep this in mind considering matters in England and Wales. Take the Liberal Democrats, for instance. The so-called party of remain were never going to vote for Johnson's deal because without the EU what exactly is the party for? It's probably fair to say they've never been as irrelevant at any point during the last 50 years, and voting with the government would doom them to further marginality.

How about the two main parties? The majority of Tories are in Johnson's pocket as far as the vote is concerned, and not only thanks to his penchant for kicking out dissidents when the crunch crunches. The European Research Group and their absurd "star chamber" were always going to find reasons to back the deal it's the nearest to their fever dream of building a tax haven off the north west coast of Europe. Even if one abides by a formal definition of sovereignty (as opposed to specifying its content), Olympic-standard mental gymnastics are required to square the internal customs border in the Irish Sea with the circle of indivisible state authority. Still, "Kaiser" Bill Cash and his bobtail collective of lawyers with nothing better to do concluded Johnson's deal "preserves the UK’s sovereignty as a matter of law and fully respects the norms of international sovereign-to-sovereign treaties." Any outstanding issues, they said, could be dealt with by "robust government". And so, anyone pining for a last ditch backbench revolt to scupper Johnson's plans are reminded, once again, there's no such thing as a Tory rebel.

Someone who might have hoped for ERG defiance is Keir Starmer. With no deal definitely off the table, the argument in favour of voting for the deal to avoid crashing out of the transition period, one trotted out by shadow cabinet members in recent days, is a load of rubbish. Not forgetting that even if it fell, Johnson could, and in this instance undoubtedly would, invoke the royal prerogative and ratify it without the Commons' acquiescence. Let's put this shilly shallying aside and get down to brass tacks. Labour's conversion to leave is much like the SNP's and Liberal Democrats' attachments to remain: it's in the party's interests. The calculation is a simple one. Having gone to the country on the second referendum prospectus, a policy Keir did more than anyone to get the party to adopt, the rejection of Labour by many formerly loyal voters demands a response to win them back. The first step along this road is dissociating the party and, importantly, his leadership from remainism - which is as good as an apology.

Does this course not come with political downsides? As this blog has argued before, because the Jeremy Corbyn leadership did not move decisively after the 2017 election to hegemonise a soft Brexit in the party, the way was left open for the so-called People's Vote to (successfully) drive a wedge between the pro-EU members and the leadership. After the disaster of the EU elections and the complete disintegration of the party's base, the party had no choice but to adopt the second referendum to keep its new core vote on board, and even then it was not enough with about a million Labour voters switching to the LibDems. Surely by supporting Johnson's deal, caveats and all, Keir is putting the continued support of remain-minded voters at risk? This is certainly the reading favoured by rebellious shadcab members and rank-and-file PLP'ers representing heavily remain seats.

This reading, I think, overestimates the resilience of Brexity remainism now as an issue and its salience into the future. With Coronavirus raging out of control, the economic depression, the post-pandemic rebuilding and everything else we can look forward to in the early 2020s, Brexit, its fall out, and disputes and bickering over the finer points of the trade deal go back to being issues for the nerds and boring Tory backbenchers. Labour deciding to back the government's deal in 2020 is not going to figure in 2024. It simply isn't. This said, doesn't the same then apply to leave voters Labour lost too? Perhaps not. Keir wants to settle the Brexit stuff now so, like in 2017 when Labour said it accepted the referendum result, he gains permission to be listened to from a whole swathe of leavers. And as 2021 is when he relaunches his leadership with a putative "vision" speech, which we've caught brief glimpses of, he hopes this will encourage them to look at Labour afresh and begin rebuilding a relationship of trust.

It could work. There is less of a likelihood of Keir alienating Labour's core support by voting for the deal than continual attacks on the left. And besides, it also depends on how Labour approaches the issue in the Commons. If Keir tries framing it as an issue to get out of the way so politics can focus on the management of the pandemic, this pricks the balloons of Johnson and his hideous backbenchers who are relishing the opportunity for grandstanding. The politics of looking statesmanly and authoritative, as we have seen, is central to "Starmerism", and could provide an opportunity for a favourable contrast.

Lastly, there is something the left should take from Labour's move. Too many of us became cheerleaders for the remain movement following the referendum. It would be a miserable mistake and a passport to more defeat if comrades simply decide their slogans and strategies for the next few years are going to focus on rejoining the EU. If the very establishment Keir Starmer can arrive at this conclusion, it's high time socialist politics did as well.

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Monday 28 December 2020

The Most Dangerous Man in Britain

Consider the evidence for yourself.

Thanks to the weak position the UK is in thanks to a decade of austerity and half-cocked Coronavirus relief measures, Universal Credit claims have surged as a combination of the virus and egregious mismanagement of the economy have destroyed jobs. Earlier in the year, our friend "Dishy Rishi" uprated Universal Credit by £1,000 in recognition of tough times. Now as then the most stingy social security settlement in Western Europe, this is due for a review in March. Is the rise going to be reversed? Clearly, Sunak's instincts would be to scrap it given how grudging he's been, and how he's responsible for the late implementation of the second lockdown and the last minute extension of the furlough scheme at the end of October. The downside for the Tories is being seen taking money from hard-pressed people. In the deserving/undeserving frame the Conservative imaginary applies to the poor and, particularly, social security recipients, they can - and for years did - get away with hammering the most vulnerable thanks to their framing getting amplified by print and broadcast media, and (disgracefully) the Labour Party itself. With growing unemployment and the obviousness of too few vacancies to go around, cutting payments by £20/week is a politically risky proposition.

The danger Sunak represents depends on the state of Covid-19, which isn't good thanks to the spread of the variant, and sounds even worse when the government's plans are considered. According to "leaks" to the Mail on Boxing Day, news the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is up for imminent approval for the vaccination programme is good news. What isn't is the government's desire to get this rolled out so restrictions can be lifted in February. This, plainly put, is reckless and psychopathic. For one, lifting restrictions means exposing working age people with health conditions to significant risks from infection. Second, even among healthy people while the risk of death is low the chances of acquiring long Covid are still unknown. This in and of itself should give any responsible politician pause. But now we have the added risks. Thanks to Tory incompetence and stupidity in letting the virus spread as it pleases, the inevitable has happened and a new, more infectious strain has emerged. Relaxing restrictions even after 11 million older people have had their vaccinations is a recipe for a public health catastrophe. And because it's happened before, it can happen again. How does a more virulent, deadly strain sound? Or perhaps one the present set of vaccines can't handle? Boris Johnson and friends are well on the road to bringing this grim eventuality about.

Mainstream politics believes the government's first responsibility is the protection of its citizens. The Tories are not only flunking this test, an outside observer could be forgiven for thinking they're pushing for even more suffering, even more deaths. And right at the heart of this push we see the chancellor who, incredibly, thinks surging infections, overcrowded hospitals, more people dying and many millions in mourning are conducive to economic growth. By some distance, this makes Rishi Sunak the most dangerous man in Britain.

Sunday 27 December 2020

Lionising Boris Johnson

No sooner is the ink dry on the Brexit deal and the hagiographies start pouring out from the usual quarter. What's the use of our fearless British press if they can't lionise the Tory Prime Minister of the day? The Mail on Sunday engaged Tory historian Andrew Roberts to deliver their contribution to this embarrassing field of letters. There are two objectives Robert has here: to use his considerable powers of flattery to build Boris Johnson up as a towering figure alongside the greats who've crossed the threshold of Number 10, and pretend Brexit was something worthwhile.

Roberts advances a tendentious theory of greatness. This rests on an ability to "make weather". Hence, Attlee and Thatcher fall into the designation, as does Ted Heath (for taking the UK into Europe) and Tony Blair. This is versus the "also-rans" who don't leave an indelible stamp on political history. Well, leaving aside the fact Dave did not lose a referendum "on proportional representation", if Heath qualifies for the laurels so does Johnson's former rival for eviscerating living standards, demolishing public services, preparing the ground for and securing the UK's self-ejection from the EU. It's also churlish to exclude Gordon Brown, but then Roberts isn't the first bourgeois scribbler to excise the role he played in saving their bacon. Johnson, by virtue of railroading his party, single-mindedly fighting an election on Brexit and winning big, and lastly ensuring "the prize" was not let out of his sights during the Coronavirus crisis counts as an achievement in terms of setting a policy objective and seeing it through. Though how much of an achievement is something that has virtually the entire press, client broadcasters, a united block of voters, and the government machinery onside? I leave it up to you to determine.

The second moment of Johnson greatness comes from his insight. While Johnson was lazing around Brussels in the 1990s filing false stories about straight bananas, Roberts has us believe he keenly watched the everyday business of the EU bureaucracy and its tendency to use brinkmanship and strongarm tactics to get the best out of their trade deals. Hence the no deal posturing was necessary to get a deal out of the EU that is to the UK's advantage. As Roberts writes, "Most thought it [a deal] was impossible without compromising our sovereignty", and yet that is exactly what has happened. Consider the realities of Priti Patel's putative posturing, for example.

Still, as a Tory intellectual facts and such can't get in the way of Roberts's thesis. Warming to his theme, there is a clumsy attempt to elide Thatcher and Johnson - she was opposed to the Maastricht Treaty and inspired a group of backbench rebels ("heroes" according to Roberts) who kept the flame of "resistance" alive. Easy to do if a MP is sitting in a safe Tory seat and have nothing better to occupy their time. And Johnson's connection? He returned to these shores a year later. If this wasn't tendentious enough, Roberts then projects himself forward a hundred years to imagine what questions students will be asked in their exam papers about this period, what made Michel Barnier "blink first" and how he's utterly assured Covid-19, in the long run, won't be as important as achieving our "independence". A bold claim with over 70,000 dead, and many, many more before this is over. More likely are questions about how the Tories got away with avoiding accountability for a disaster they've aggravated at every turn, why government-aligned journalists were so keen to undermine public health messaging, how the Tories managed to corruptly award so many government contracts without comeback, or why an obviously self-immolating course was pursued while a pandemic exacted its grim cost.

The rest is the usual fantasyland nonsense about how the UK will become a world leader in artificial intelligence, the life sciences, and so on because we are free of the EU. Interestingly, four years on no one has yet explained how being part of the EU held back scientific research in this country - though it's obvious how Brexit throws a wrench into the works of cross border collaboration thanks to the disruption to funding streams, visa issues, and the other barriers thrown up. Sharing Tory fever dreams might wow the ignoramuses who lap up this guff, but behind the fantasies are the brute realities of depressed opportunities, downgraded economic growth, and presided over by a Tory governent who've spent the last decade enriching their class at the expense of everyone else.

If the rest of the establishment believed in Britain like Johnson and the government do, Robert concludes, then the country would soar. This is the utter poppycock, but remember this is coming from someone who said Brexit was a "more impressive achievement" than the French revolution. When you consider what the Tories do to working people, to young people, to those subsisting on social security, to people they consider disposable minorities, for those who fall between the cracks of their Covid support schemes, there isn't a party more ill at ease with the world and determined to impose themselves on it regardless of the damage done than the Tories. I'm all for a bit of self-belief, so let's imagine an alternative: a Britain where courtiers like Roberts are laughed out of the room, where The Mail is a memory, and the Tory party is permanently locked out of office. And let us make it so.

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Saturday 26 December 2020

Space Harrier II for the MegaDrive/Genesis

Space Harrier II was one of those games I lusted for. Seeing the first screenshots sometime in the late 80s it looked head and shoulders above anything else then available, and I can remember my mate who was lucky enough to get a MegaDrive early on import waxing lyrical about it. Then, for some reason, the lustre faded. I got my own machine in the Summer of 1991 but the game never featured on my to-buy list. Even when Sega knocked down the prices of its early titles to a "budget" range of £20 a pop, I never picked it up. It was only when the MegaDrive was dead did the long-buried desire get met. I don't know why, as I wasn't interested much in games at this point, but on my way back home I found myself in Game Station in Derby in the summer of 1998, and as a load of MegaDrive games were getting sold off cheap I picked it up for bout eight quid. Don't know what I was expecting, but played it a handful of times and didn't think it was much cop. The much younger me would have been disappointed.

Time is a funny thing. My MegaDrive got packed up not long after and it went untouched for about 13 years. When it was broken out again Space Harrier II got the revisit treatment and, what do you know, I enjoyed it much more. As a Japanese launch title, Sega were hoping it would do something to showcase the potential of the MegaDrive, which I suppose, alongside Altered Beast, it did. While ropy-looking a couple of years following its release (though with some of the most clear speech on the system), it moved smoother and the graphics were more detailed than the ports of its prequel to other home systems, and was head and shoulders above the naff ports to the home computers. But the gameplay? I guess it speaks to evolving tastes.

For readers unfamiliar with Space Harrier and its progeny, the original game was a 1985 arcade monster known for its stunning graphics, speed, and fast gameplay. Popularising genre we now call today the rail shooter, but was back then simply known as the Space Harrier clone, the game has the eponymous Harrier flying into the screen to liberate the Fantasy Zone/Fantasy Land/Dragon Land from the bad 'uns who've outstayed their welcome. This means shooting everything that moves and/or avoiding them as they try careening into or blasting our beweaponed, airborne hero. The end of each level sees the compulsory boss fighr, and so it goes. Space Harrier II is simply a reiteration of the basic formula. The gameplay is exactly the same, though an obvious downgrade in the visuals, sound, and technical wizardry of its arcade inspiration (no scaling, for one!). The question is ... whether the gameplay is for you.

Spave Harrier II isn't for everyone. I initially thought I was in, turned out it wasn't my cup of tea, but became someone who appreciated the game for what it is. There is no depth here at all. As per the first, shoot the baddies, avoid the onrush of columns, pillars, clams and, um, starfish trees, and take on the end of level bosses. They're not too difficult once you know the patterns, and some are a complete pushover. Do this over 12 stages, pausing for two bonus stages, and then level 13 reveals itself as a boss rush. Once they're all despatched to the back of beyond, it's you versus Dark Harrier. Show him the door and you're treated to a melancholic ending that has your Harrier contemplating the nature of evil and how the fight never ends. Cheery.

Ulitmately, I suppose it's the undemanding nature of the gameplay that suits me now. As someone who flatters themselves into thinking they live life at a million miles an hour, the idea of learning how to play a game is just annoying. The advantage of something like Space Harrier II is how it makes no demands of the player. Indeed, perhaps inadvertently, while its soundtrack is nowhere near as memorable as the original it is quite chilled and relaxing. Indeed, for a frenetic game it's a calming affair and not one of those that sees the joypad curling through the air. Once the patterns are learned it can be a game that simply washes over the player and the experience becomes a multi-coloured barrage of thoughtless button presses. Cue something tangential about postmodernism here, but instead I'll spare the reader.

These days Space Harrier is much better remembered than its MegaDrive sequel. It has canonical status while this game, alas, is something of a curio. Worthwhile having a go if you can't get enough of your 16-bit rail shooters, or if you have some nostalgia attached, but ultimately now the arcade original is widely available everywhere it's worth going there for your slightly psychedelic blasting jollies.

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Priti Patel, the Tories, and the Death Penalty

On the Saturday following the 2015 general election, yours truly went out with the stalwarts who'd pounded the streets of Stafford constituency. The soreness of our soles were matched by the bruises on our souls after the Tories had increased their majority, despite neither hide nor hair being seen of them on the campaign trail. I digress. Patronising the Post House, a tweet got passed around our table. The rumour, now long buried in the Twitter archive, said free of their Liberal Democrat "partners" the Tories were planning big cuts to maternity pay. There was consternation, but thankfully nothing came of it.

This episode came to mind reading this last night. i.e. The rumour Home Secretary Priti Patel has asked for a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty. Given her awfulness and authoritarianism, this has enough "truthiness" to be plausible. Previously, she was an advocate for capital punishment but claimed back in 2016 that she had changed her mind. Could she have switched back? Free of the EU and with an effective 80-seat majority, might this rumour have legs?

Well, yes and no. The politics of capital punishment isn't massively popular. A survey published this Summer found 21% of Conservative MPs wanted to see the restoration of the death penalty which, interestingly, was down on the third who supported it in the 2017-19 parliament. According to polling, 11% of Labour members and 31% of Labour voters would like to see capital punishment come back, with two-thirds of Tory supporters agreeing too. As a populist move, capital punishment might have the scope for reaching beyond the government's core support, but by the same token something as emotive - and repugnant - as the death penalty can repel people too, including some in their existing voter coalition. From a political point of view, with divisions entrenched and profitable for the Tories, and serving as the basis for new wars on woke/bigging up British nationalism, opening a new division with the potential for cutting across existing divisions is a politically risky move. Not that this would stop backbench Tory MPs or Nigel Farage from cashing in.

There's another constraint on the Tories if they're tempted to go down this road. Their sovereignty fetish is key for understanding why so many of them argued for Brexit, but their deal with the EU fundamentally stays their hand. The death penalty runs counter to the European Convention on Human Rights, of which the UK is a signatory. Moving to restore capital punishment, or threatening to do so undermines the ECHR, and this is explicitly against the deal Boris Johnson has committed the UK to. Not only would security cooperation cease if the UK are in contravention of or leave the ECHR, but the deal as a whole could unwind. Instead of getting on and pushing his pipedreams, would someone as congenitally lazy as Johnson embroil his government in a further round of tedious and boring disputes with the EU on the half-chance he'd politically benefit? Especially when the purposes for keeping his coalition can be better served elsewhere? Unlikely.

These are the stakes. Whether the Patel rumour turns out to be true or not, the politics are too uncertain and the returns too unclear for Johnson and his government to embrace the death penalty as his new culture war objective.

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Friday 25 December 2020

Three More Soviet Christmas Cards

Okay, they're new year cards as opposed to Christmas cards, but artistic license is a thing.

Thursday 24 December 2020

The Shite Before Christmas

The Tory press called it an early present for the UK, while in his presser Keir Starmer said the new Brexit deal was "thin". Truth be told, it should be known as the shite before Christmas. Boris Johnson might have a barrel full of fish under one arm and a 2,000 page document in the other, but this is truly a terrible deal compared to the status quo and one much worse than might otherwise have been the case. Like, say, if Labour were in government or sundry remain MPs in the indicative vote process had voted for a closer relationship with the EU instead of their second referendum fantasy. Let's not dwell on the past, though, and unwrap the rancid-smelling gift the Prime Minister has left under the tree.

For an economy weakened by austerity, ravaged by Coronavirus, and heavily dependent on services (comprising some 80% of UK economic activity), the new deal makes it more difficult to sell them into the European Union. There will be delays to British exports into the single market as goods become subject to origins checks. There is the added paperwork, and the logistical nightmare of digesting the new rules and complying before the new year - a recipe for more waiting. And at the end of it, for what benefit? So Tory ministers can jet around the world signing bilateral trade deals replicating existing EU trading terms, and the government gets to exercise their "sovereignty" without the staying hand of the European Court. Except, they don't. For all the guff about standards and regulatory divergence, the UK must abide by and match EU standards if it wants to carry on selling stuff. Which, as Johnson helpfully reminded us, amounts to £650bn/year. Likewise, continuity in the security relationship between the UK and EU is premised upon the Tories' continued commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights. Infringe this and the UK are kept at greater arm's length.

With this trade deal negotiated in record time there are bound to be some howlers and frights awaiting in its pages, and these are going to stoke the political fires well into the new year. Indeed, the Commons ratification of the treaty on 30th December might be fun even if proceedings are entirely by Zoom. And this is what matters; the politics. For Johnson this is the promise fulfilled. It doesn't matter how bad the deal is, he can guarantee the rightwing chatterers and broadcasting's client hacks will talk up the achievement and faithfully relay his lines when things go awry, or those nasties emerge from the deal's text. This is the deal he secured in the face of opposition from within parliament, opposition from within business, and has kept the faith all the way through the pandemic. The 2019 Tory manifesto didn't promise much because this was the centrepiece. Johnson has delivered Brexit, despite the grifting whingeing of Nigel Farage. For a man who compulsively lies, for millions of voters who supported the Tories a year ago he has kept his word.

Now the immediate issue is whether the deal clears the Commons, which is virtually certain. Labour aren't about to oppose it, as confirmed by Keir Starmer this evening, and nor are the European Research Group and their allies. Interviews with the likes of Andrew Bridgen and Craig Mackinlay finds them coy about the "devil in the detail", and well-known stroppy bod Steve Baker has spent the evening sanguinely tweeting the Tory party's self-congratulations. They might prefer a no deal because of the interests at stake, but allowing Johnson his moment now and not being seen to jeopardise the Brexit "project" trumps any rebellion in the Commons next week. Besides, what is done can be undone in the fullness of time.

How about the Tory vote itself, and those Johnson flattered and patronised a year back for their conditional Brexit votes? Will the deal finally break the polling logjam and start the slow bleed back of Tory supporters to Labour. Is politics going to return to "normal"? No one can say with certainty, but as predicting the outcome of social relationships is a probabilistic game, I'm going to suggest the answer is ... nyet. The remainers can bang on about what has been lost, but thanks to the pandemic the Tory base aren't fussed by the disappearance of free movement into the EU, they're not going to be bothered about the job losses or wage freezes because it mostly does not affect them, and where goods are held up it will be a minor inconvenience. So what if they can't get Spanish strawberries in the middle of Winter? As far as they're concerned nothing changes and they will feel vindicated in their decision. Perhaps a Labour strategy based on economic radicalism could reach some who switched in 2019, but remember, Brexit is a symptom of the polarisation in British society as a whole. Or, to be more precise, helped catalyse the manifestation of two poles in politics. As long as this persists, it's hard to see significant numbers of Tory voters folding over into the Labour camp. Cue pundits scratching their heads wondering why Keir Starmer's patriotism offensive etc. stubbornly refuses to work.

Johnson might be secure for now, but here's the other problem. Brexit isn't done. It will never be done. The details, difficulties, and damages inflicted by the deal might fade into the background and become one for the geeks in the same way the EU was before Dave recklessly gambled and lost, but we've seen how a fringe issue can blow up into popular consciousness. There is a grievance narrative ready to be composed by the likes of Farage and the Brexiteers looking to carve out a long-term position for themselves, and there are opportunities too for continuity remain around the fringes. The problem, as the last 10 years have taught us, is how these niche issues can become mobilising issues if the media run with them. And so this Christmas we are waving goodbye to five years worth of fraught and frustrating politics, but the wind about the door and the chill in the air carries one thing: the ghost of Brexit consequences to come.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

No Holding Back: A Strategy for the Left

The Labour Together report into Labour's 2019 election loss was well received and got plenty of coverage, not least because it skipped over uncomfortable facts and dovetailed the dominant narrative of pinning the blame on Jeremy Corbyn. The No Holding Back report published in the Autumn by Ian Lavery, Laura Smith, and Jon Trickett splashed nowhere near as much because its findings, based on a nationwide tour and submissions from party activists, challenged the story Labour's leadership and their media helpers were determined to tell. Conversely, the report was heralded by many on the left who were of the opinion it was Brexit wot did it which, again, is far too simplistic and skirts over some unpalatabe truths. Thankfully, this report - which should be read by everyone on the left, and a few centrists too - is even handed, makes the right diagnoses (up to a point), and prescribes a course the party would do well to heed.

Okay, let's get Brexit out the way. On page nine, the comrades write,
People who had supported remain were sold a falsehood that not only could the result of the referendum be overturned, but that every version of Brexit was disastrous. This discourse was relentlessly pursued by senior politicians despite there never being a realistic prospect of it happening. The debate was purposely polarised away from any nuanced position on leaving the EU. Labour got on the wrong side of the Brexit debate and endless Parliamentary manoeuvres left people in our communities in no doubt about our opposition to their will. In the Party’s headlong rush todefend liberalism, it left behind its commitment to democracy. Never again should we forget that we are the Party of democratic socialism.
This is true, but also a bit too easy. As someone who was very much against a second referendum until the party switched its position to supporting one, our first unwelcome truth - not considered by the report - is how Labour didn't have much of a choice. Because the leadership did not move to consolidate the Labour consensus around a soft Brexit in the aftermath of 2017, the party ended up where it ended up with the remain wedge operation running riot. The decision the leadership had to make because it ducked the earlier battle was run the risk of losing a shedload of older Labour leavers or, perhaps even more catastrophically, haemorrhage support among the rising generation of workers who now comprised Labour's base. The lesson here is, borrowing a certain phrase, to move fast and make our revolution permanent if we find ourselves in such a position of strength again.

At least No Holding Back doesn't pretend the Brexit position was the only factor. Going from activist testimony, the report draws on a number of common themes. The first was Corbyn himself who was a hard sell on the doors. Time and again, as any canvasser will happily explain, he just wasn't cutting the mustard. I got the old communist and terrorist sympathiser routine, along with being no different to anyone else and going back on Brexit. This, the comrades argue, could have been avoided if early in the leadership the values and solidarity Jeremy frequently evoked were tied together in a srong push around, for want of a better phrase, our friend progressive patriotism. Leaving aside that debate, they do note (page 18) how in the space of two years Corbyn had become such a drag on the doors is still lacking a fully fleshed out account. This is true - the right can never concede how Corbyn was an asset in 2017 and too many on the left can't countenance how he came to be a liablity as far as many former Labour voters were concerned.

The second issue was policy incoherence. This isn't the same as capitulating to establishment claims about the character of the manifesto, but more an issue of not sticking to core messages about the party's plans - it was as if the lessons of 2017 had been unlearned. A populist story around inequality and the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich were all possibilities that were neglected, and might have had an impact around the edges of the campaign. The report also notes the party pledges, in places, were contradictory with the promise not to raise taxes for anyone on under £80k versus plans to scrap the married persons tax allowance. Unsurprisingly, the incoherence of the platform, with new policies seemingly added willy-nilly, was matched by confused messaging and fell short of 2017 - not because it didn't cut through, but because it was less focused.

Party disunity was another key factor, which Labour Together somewhat papered over. Here No Holding Back doesn't point the stick too much, but does refer to that report as evidence of the toxic atmos and scabbing taking place at party HQ and acknowledges shenanigans on the parliamentary party's part. It's funny how, a year on, those doing the undermining and saying they had no effect on the result because Corbyn's unpopularity was baked in are also those now moaning about the left's knockabout with Keith memes and the like. Still, there were opportunities for the left to clear house but didn't take them. I'm sorry to say if a leader doesn't look like they're in charge of their party, average punters who don't pay politics much mind aren't going to deem them capable of leading the country.

The report also singles out "old-fashioned campaigning", i.e. voter ID and cold calling, at the expense of long-term campaigning. This is difficult to dispute, because it's true - but at least Corbyn's office made a start here with the community organising units, which are bigged up in the report. Sad to say, signs abound that Labour are about to go backwards on this. Lastly, the culture gap between the party and constituencies is singled out, particularly between those outside London, the South East, and the big cities and those in them. I'm not entirely sold on this or the idea Labour has a "working class problem" as opposed to an old people problem, particularly as the methodology here is premised on our ABC1/C2DE friend - which they at least acknowledge is problematic.

Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions as a neophyte call centre manager might say. Okay, the first - which did attract a little bit of mainstream attention - was the recommendation Labour apologises for its Brexit position to both sides of the debate. This should be a priority for Keir Starmer who, after all, did more than his fair share to polarise Labour members on the issue. Of course, our authors aren't so naive to believe this is a quick fix but a bit of humility and humble pie with new ideas (hmmm), "imaginative interventions", and coherent policy can all help. Naturally, the community organising is mentioned again with the recommendation each CLP should have an officer with this responsibility, assisted by the strengthening of union links and a recruitment drive among party members to get them into unions. This should be combined with more power and financial autonomy to constituency and branch parties, funds for growing low membership CLPs in deprived areas, and a more accessible subs structure. The report also wants to see an end to parachuting in notables and the favoured with a fixed percentage in any shortlist drawn from the local constituency, more financial support for candidates, a programme for developing talented activists coming through and a renewed commitment to political education with the unions. Lastly, Labour needs to take local government more seriously with priorities around ending outsourcing and providing national leadership highlighting the cuts made to councils, instead of leaving it to local Labour groups to fend for themselves or completely embracing the politics of compliance, thereby further undermining the party's support.

In all, this is a welcome document because it takes in each dimension of Labour's defeat and points to a better rounded and more strategic way forward cultivating the class politics the party rests on. But it comes with a caveat. As this place has argued more times than is healthy, the values dimension of British politics, as encapsulated by the terms of the Tory-stoked culture war demands both a rigorous understanding of what "identity politics" is and how Boris Johnson's success on this score isn't because he waves cheap little flags while dangling from a zip wire, but how Brexit, the war on woke, and the hatred of the young are rooted in the politics of property acquisition and class cohort effects. Thankfully, No Holding Back doesn't advocate saluting the flag/back our boys bollocks, and is right to focus on the issues that matter to our communities. This is the best way of winning back those voters Labour lost because it's the only way.

A good document then for which Ian, Laura, and Jon should be thanked. It gives the left a strategic orientation to organise and regroup around when the attritional warfare abates. This is good, commonsense class politics. And that is why if Keir Starmer adopts any of these recommendations, it will be because the weight of the membership have forced him to.

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Tuesday 22 December 2020

A Monologue on Labour's Dialogue Rewards

Even the dogs in the street have seen Labour's 'Dialogue Rewards' scheme by now, but I reproduce it here for the most sought-after commodity in the attention economy: opinionated commentary:

This has upset a few Labour people, and quite understandably. This is right up there with the blessed EdStone. This is what I'd expect from the galaxy brain genius of David Evans, an apparatchik who put in the hard yards during the Blair years. First is the crass assumption that competition is the best motivator, straight out from the New Labour public sector reform school of thought. Dangle some juicy carrots in front of the membership's noses and they'll be "incentivised" to hit the phones and rack up the voter ID. The second, which is a bit of a self-own if we're honest, is the idea the troops can only be rallied this way. I know Keir Starmer is yet to unveil his exciting vision for the future and so we're left with reading the tea leaves. Yet offering members the most gaudy of baubles suggests one might have difficulty supplying the necessary enthusiasm by conventional means. Say what you like about Jeremy Corbyn and his policies, there were plenty of hands when they were needed on deck. And they didn't need a phone call from Barry Gardinder to motivate them.

Anyone with a passing aquaintance with rational choice-influenced approaches to parties and social movements knows would spot the similarities between it and the assumptions informing this scheme: people get involved in politics because it appeals to their interests. Typically conceptualised in utilitarian/economist terms, variations on rational choice have emphasised the particular benefits accruing to one as an activist above and beyond saving the library from closure, or getting the boss to backdown on compulsory unpaid overtime. For some it's a sense of purpose, of belonging to something bigger than them. Others might be motivated by office-seeking behaviour, be it standing as a candidate or graduating to a position of leadership and/or trust in a movement. Either way, all voluntary political organisations beat out pathways for advancement, introduce internal stakes and, dare I say it, their own forms of cultural capital. For example, in Labour being known as a "campaigner" (of the conventional kind), having the ear of influential people, being a source of gossip, knowing how to produce leaflets, and factional affiliations are all markers of one's position in the local pecking order. Accumulating standing, if this is what a particular member wants, is fairly easy provided they have the time to invest and a modicum of cunning.

The production of this circular shows the top brass know this about their party. After all, if any lesson has been drawn from the Corbyn years it's how the threat to seats, career aspirations, and lay officer positions at constituency level held the Labour right together and gave them the cohesion no amount of Fabian pamphlets or Tom Watson diet books could. And, in the interests of accuracy, this circular is only putting into print what has been going on in the party since its inception. Think about the Christmas fundraisers with "celebrity guests" (ah, those heady Stoke dinners with Alastair Campbell, Alistair Darling, Alan Johnson, Mike Cashman), or special events with the stars (curries with Caroline Flint and Stella Creasy, Labour First meals with a Rachel Reeves stand-up routine), you get the overall picture. I remember not long after joining how miffed locals were because Roy Hattersley failed to show for a scheduled nosh. For some, party membership means special access or, for most, the illusion of special access. Likewise, regional offices have long operated schemes where councillors or MPs meeting their contact rate targets (or exceeding them by a certain margin) would receive extra literature or a centrally-paid mail shot. Not something volunteers are going to give much of a fig about as free literature means more trudging around, but enough for politicians ever eager to keep a high profile. This was also useful from the standpoint of the party machine. Voter ID/pieces delivered are fine and dandy, but who meets targets and who doesn't helps the local regional office and constituency offices, where they exist, sort between "their people" and the wastrels. It's a yardstick for determining who's clubbable and dependable and, mostly, who'll do as they're told in that particular patch.

In other words, the appearance of our "reward scheme" is a symptom of an unwelcome return. The old bureaucratic culture of manipulation and distrust is not just on its way back, it's getting pushed right from the top. Perhaps something worth getting awkward about if anyone reading this is invited to the thankyou Zoom event with Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner.

Against "Poor Parenting"

For decades governments red and blue have worked hard to negate poverty as a social issue. Not by making sure people have enough money to live on, but by individualising it and making it a matter of personal failure - something with seen the government transfer and implement via their Coronavirus strategy. This guest post from Ruth Woolsey looks at some of the sociology behind poverty and parenting and finds the facts do not fit the Tory narrative.

Parents are often blamed for the adverse circumstances they have little control over. Marcus Rashford’s recent child food poverty campaign highlighted punitive attitudes towards parents for not being able to provide for their children. Parents were told that they should not be having children if they cannot afford them, and a number of MPs suggested others were using food vouchers to trade for drugs. Comments on social media during the campaign revealed two distinct camps: those who see children needing to be provided with enough food irrespective of circumstances, and those in another group who think baying for the blood of these parents will somehow ensure their children will be fed or, to be honest, don't care. Many Conservative MPs are in this latter camp after voting against a half-term extension on free school meals, alongside working class Tories who offer themselves up as Christmas dinner each time they cast their vote.

Where we are born and to whom largely determines our life chances, which is why upward social mobility does not occur as frequently as fans of meritocracy suggest. This doesn’t mean intelligence varies at birth depending on socioeconomic status, as eugenicists claim, but that reproduction of inequality prevents many from reaching their potential. This is why the RSA’s advocacy backs a basic income, to give people space and some financial security to unleash creativity which they believe everyone possesses, but often do not get the opportunity to discover. This is because structural inequalities impede poorer people. For example, in education, children of wealthier parents are more likely to navigate education confidently, as well as having all the material resources necessary for successful attainment generally leading to greater choice of career and higher earning potential. In his 2003 study of early child development, Feinstein found how a low attaining child at two years old from a privileged socioeconomic background will outperform a high attaining child from a poor socioeconomic group by the age of six.

Drawing on Bourdieu’s ideas of social, cultural, economic and symbolic capitals demonstrates how being embedded within higher socioeconomic status contributes to sustaining class privilege. Wilson and Herbert reflecting on their 1978 study of children and parents in the inner city argued that the 1944 Education Act's aspiration of equality of opportunity would not be realised while inequality persists. Therefore, people born into poorer families are not less intellectually capable than wealthier groups but lack the necessary resources and capitals for upward social mobility. Rich people like to claim they work hard for their wealth. Some poorer people subscribe to such beliefs, perhaps because it makes them feel less resentful. But they should feel resentful, because wealthy people have not obtained their wealth single-handedly but through the work of others. It would also be impossible for those on low wages to ever reach such wealth. Yet it is poorer groups who are accused of being ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’ at the expense of ‘hard-working taxpayers’. On the contrary, thanks to decades of tax breaks and handouts it is the wealthiest and most powerful who take most from the public purse. During Marcus Rashford’s campaign how many MPs voting against the school meals extension were claiming their own lunch expenses were highlighted. And minimum wage workers of the four largest supermarkets have to claim tax credits when their employers could pay them a living wage and still keep their millions. But it is the poorest who have become dominant and persistant in popular and political discourse as ‘undeserving’, contributing to the ‘doxa’, a Bourdieusian term for showing how such stereotypes come, albeit unconsciously, to be seen as ‘self-evident truths’ rather than merely opinions which are open to contestation and discussion. In reality, one in eight workers now live in poverty and this includes professionals such as teachers and NHS staff who have resorted to foodbanks and emergency accommodation over the last decade.

For those claiming benefits, Patrick’s 2014 study on the lived experience of surviving on welfare, found most have a strong work ethic and work hard at finding employment. For many unable to take advantage of the education system often find themselves in low paid, monotonous ‘junk jobs’ but still maintain a strong commitment to work. Self-esteem can be jeopardised by undertaking work deemed as low status leading to mental health issues, and in turn, poor physical health. Added to this, low wages mean having to hold down several jobs for some families which leaves less time to invest in their children’s education. Therefore, although it is clear most poor people work hard, the only jobs often available are bad for physical and mental health and the wellbeing of children.

Suggesting people should not have children if they cannot afford them not only evokes images of eugenics movements, but raises further ethical and economic considerations. As it is, the reason people usually find partners from similar class backgrounds is called ‘assortative mating’; those from the higher socioeconomic strata tend not to associate outside of their social class, particularly since the rising growth in inequality from the 1980s, thereby further reproducing inequality by concentrating wealth within this group. That leaves potential parents from low socioeconomic backgrounds, who may on some level realise social mobility is a myth and that their financial status is unlikely to change, deciding to have children at any time as this is as good as any. To suggest preventing those who have been unlucky at birth from having children is inhumane. Besides, when one in three working families would not be able to keep their rented or mortgaged home if they couldn’t work for more than a month highlights just how common vulnerability to poverty is.

Unfortunately, poverty does add additional strain on childrearing which is not without consequences. Stress from juggling bills, worrying about how to pay for basic items, anxiety over children getting bullied for not having the ‘right’ clothes, living in inadequate housing and so on, can lead to what neurologists Sonne and Gash describe as intense repeated exposure to stress. In turn, parents can feel exhausted and may experience empathy fatigue and PTSD. In their paper on the lived experience of poverty, Rose and McAuley argue it is this ‘snap shot’ of parents struggling which is portrayed as poor parenting rather than an honest account of the multiple issues arising from poverty. Instead, stressed parents are condemned for smoking, drinking alcohol and taking drugs regardless, with simplistic remarks about how money spent on these items could be used on food for their children. Similarly, items deemed by most as basic such as a widescreen TV or a pet are viewed as luxuries for poor people which they should not be spending money on. In her ethnographic study of food bank use, Garthwaite observes how this “detracts from the bigger picture of the everyday hardship people face…this denial of a right to make choices or have luxuries strips away basic human dignity” (2016, p.68). Not being able to afford things for their children and themselves makes parents feel powerless and “erode[s] their sense of self-worth and self-confidence, often accompanied by anxiety and depression”, as Rose and McAuley note (2019, p.138). Consequently, mental and physical health is compromised further adding to the burden.

In spite of the hardship, Rose and McAuley found parents determined to try and better the lives of their children, and this sometimes meant going without food or other basic items for themselves. However, right wing policy makers exploit the consequences of poverty where parents show signs of exhaustion and stress by maintaining such behaviours are individual character flaws. Blaming people for their own poverty has a long history and during the recent bout of public sector cuts, the Tories impemented parenting programmes to ‘help’ parents improve their behaviour but with no additional financial support. To take away or significantly reduce public funds for services, allowing public housing rents to climb, paying no mind to zero hour contracts and inadequate wages, and then to blame parents for parenting poorly is sadistic. Any reform agenda failing to address redistribution will always be a sticking plaster approach and a waste of money. The point for the Tories however is it is punitive; that it punishes the poor who are used as scapegoats for an economy where social democracy is unidentifiable but Neoliberalism is in full swing.

In contrast to current family programmes, Surestart which was wound down by the Conservatives was inclusive, supportive, and enjoyed by middle class and working class parents. Indeed, as a rule parenting does not differ much between the classes and that poorer parents may even practice some parenting which is more beneficial for children, such as eating meals as a family, more frequently than those from higher socioeconomic groups. However, it is not a competition of who can parent better but to highlight most parents try their best and should be supported and not demonised. For the children who do have go into care, examples can be given of how the UK government has proven to be a bad parent themselves.

Rose and McAuley argue that “careful distinction needs to be made between the damaging impact of financial stress on parents themselves and their parenting behaviours with their children” (p.140). Simply, adequate money whether through wages or welfare for families with young children, and young people who do not have family support is what is necessary to break intergenerational poverty and prevent its detrimental impacts. There may still be issues which need addressing such as mental health or practical assistance, for which intervention may be necessary, but without the burden of poverty psychological wounds have a chance to heal properly.

To make this happen the discourse about poor parents has to be challenged to show that parents who struggle financially are not lazy or inadequate, but have been born into circumstances more common than politics and the media like to pretend. The public need to understand it is politics and not budgeting problems responsible for inequality. If the public are already aware it is possible to end child poverty, then there is a bigger question as to why they do not support this. As Wilson and Herbert summed up back in their Parents and Children in the Inner City, “the problem of disadvantaged children does not lie in genetic or in psychological deficits, it lies in an unequal distribution of the resources of our society. The position of the children who grow up in poverty is one of hope, because their disadvantage, given the will, can be eliminated” (p.198).

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Monday 21 December 2020

Keir Starmer's Scotland Strategy

Undaunted by the chaos unfolding in Dover as borders are closed to UK traffic, the iron law of the Labour media grid compelled Keir Starmer to deliver his Scotland speech this morning. The warm up, if you like, ahead of the big vision pitch planned for the New Year. What then did Keir have to say? Nothing surprising or eye-catching, alas, but a little bit more about his politics.

We learned Keir understands some of the reasons why support for the SNP and Scottish independence are galloping. In the speech, he argues a decade worth of cuts followed by Johnson's singularly reckless Brexit strategy have shaken the union. He said "... they are blind to the damage that their cavalier attitude is doing to our United Kingdom ... in Brexit and in austerity they’ve given separatists two big boxing gloves to pummel the United Kingdom." This is giving the Tories too much credit. They are blind to nothing where the party's immediate and medium term political interests are concerned, as we've seen before and will see again in their uses of Scottish nationalism. And then there is the recurring use of "separatists" and "separatism", which we'll note now and return to again.

Keir then moves on to surer territory. The SNP are criticised for their woeful record on education and rise in child poverty which, to be fair to the Scottish government, is also a problem cooked up using the ingredients provided by London. The SNP are also attacked for presiding over the third highest Covid death rate in Europe, and how this caused Scotland to have the worst care home death toll in the UK. After rounding on the SNP's performance, he said "... it’s no wonder that Nicola Sturgeon wants to make next May’s elections a referendum on another referendum. Because on education, health and social justice the SNP has no story to tell."

Then we come to the main event. Keir's test for the party's recovery is not just about rewinning trust in Scotland for Labour, but to rebuild faith in the UK state itself. And how he plans on doing this is via a social justice policy agenda and an ambitious devolution plan. Pushing power away from Westminster is the ostensible aspiration. Interesting. He notes how the Tories have rode roughshod over local concerns and ignored their expertise at the moment local and devolved authorities should have been empowered, and so Labour is seeking to spearhead debate on what a looser, less centralised UK might look like by sponsoring a constitutional convention in the new year. Here we find warm words about enabling communities to have more of a say over their lives, and the lowering of the costs of democratic participation. Beyond more devolution, nothing is being ruled out - a nod to those hoping for long overdue electoral reform, perhaps.

The priority, however, is Scotland. This isn't just to save Scottish Labour's bacon (and boy, does it need saving), but to focus on Scotland's persistent problems. As he put it, "Ultimately, there’s nothing that separatism can offer to a child living in poverty in Glasgow. Just as there’s nothing that nationalism can offer a child living in poverty in Camden." Hence, rowing back on the softer position he adopted a couple of months ago, Labour is now definitely against another independence referendum thanks to the precarious state Covid-19 and Tory Brexit recklessness has left the country in. And that, as they say, is the general gist.

Scottish Labour's problems are easy to diagnose but difficult to resolve. The party's working class base in the central belt has almost completely disintegrated, based as it was on the overwhelmingly unionist labour movement who reaped real benefits from its integration into the UK's manufacturing base. For as long as the post-war settlement remained in place, the politics of independence were a fringe affair because the union delivered in the language of livelihoods and decent living standards for enough workers. And when this fell away in the Thatcher years thanks to her government's efforts at driving industry to the wall and then using Scotland as the Poll Tax's test bed, Labour was put on time. Between 1987 and 2010 the party benefited in Westminster terms, but because New Labour did not make good the damage done, in set the rot. The SNP victories in 2007 and 2011 should have rung alarm bells and warned the party what might happen if they're seen to side with the party that had inflicted such terrible damage, but into bed they got with the Tories in 2014. Perhaps Labour's collapse was inevitable, but taking Tory talking points and backing George Osborne over how he'd screw Scotland in pre-independence negotiations was hardly the stuff of strategic genius.

That's how Labour got destroyed, but the way back is nigh-on impossible. The core constituency Jeremy Corbyn drew to Labour in England and Wales decamped en masse to the SNP in 2014 and haven't come back. Nor does much of Scottish Labour seem fussed. Richard Leonard knows the way back is through consistent community organisation and making it relevant at the point of struggle, but most of the party - especially its wretched establishment - see this as a waste of time. Madness, they say, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And so, once again, Labour will enter battle for Holyrood and, no doubt, for Westminster in 2024 targeting the declining unionist vote. Keir Starmer's warm words about constitutional change with added Gordon Brown aren't going to wash, because the last time Labour signed up to a vow absolutely nothing came of it.

Why are we going through with this then? Well, naturally, the path to a majority Labour government is impossible in the immediate future without winning back some Scottish seats, so the leader has to be seen to lead. But ultimately, this is about an English audience and fighting elections south of the border. As Mr Remain with recent baggage for ignoring the result of one referendum, that ghost has to be put to rest by accepting any putative Brexit trade deal, and enforcing the outcome of the previous 'once in a generation' referendum. There is brute calculus here. Nicola Sturgeon grates on many soft Labour/swing voter/red waller voters because she is seen as banging on about independence to the exclusion of everything else. Plus the First Minister is, particularly in the imaginary of older voters, a vector of instability - and we know how they feel about uncertainty. You don't even have to get theoretical about it: the Tories deployed the Scottish card with skill in 2015, despite Labour sacrificing itself for the union, and it worked. Keir's Scotland speech is more than constitutional promises, it's an attempt well ahead of time to blunt the Labour/SNP coalition fearmongering the Tories will reach for.

The language of separatism is important too. This is only partly about using something more emotive and negative than 'nationalist', it speaks to the statism of Keir's politics. As we saw with calls for social media bans and preference for process criticisms over political critique, this is only so much about "optics" - it's part of an effort to restore trust in the authority of public institutions. I.e. the state. Indeed, his attack on the SNP is explicitly couched in these terms, of how their attempts to divide authority results in neglecting the business of government. Keir's approach is nothing new, it's in the DNA of Labourism and the Fabian tradition in particular, of politicians getting elected and implementing policy while for everyone else politics is a spectator sport. Hence the concern for restoring authority: it's indispensable for his project.

This, however, raises an awkward question. How seriously can we take Keir's commitment to the results of Labour's constitutional commission when, despite the efforts of noted friend of grassroots democracy Gordon Brown, it makes recommendations that frustrate the will-to-centralisation? I'll leave readers the space to guess the answer.

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Sunday 20 December 2020

Postmodernism: A Defence

Feeling honour bound to defend postmodernism? As if 2020 couldn't get weirder, and yet here we are. In a week where naked men in panda masks ride the New York free way, a signal of possible alien origin from Proxima Centauri is under investigation, and Keir Starmer did some opposition at PMQs, the discourse was enlightened by the sudden trending of one Michel Foucault. The enfant terrible of the French academy and San Francisco bathhouses, it's only taken him 36 years since his premature demise to become a trending topic. The occasion was a throw away line in a lazy, terrible speech by Liz Truss, signalling how the Tories intend to target "wokeness" as their Brexit substitute seeing its days as their ideological firmer-upper de jour are numbered. Foucault got namechecked as a trendy denier of truth/champion of relativism. As night follows day - no schizoid lines of flight here - our dear old friend postmodernism crackled around the circuits of social media, dropping confusion bombs and 280 characters' worth of denunciations. Ho, ho, what an incorrigible trickster our neon nihilist nightmare is. One of the intensities it charged up to the point of attracting the flitting moths of the attention economy was Paul Mason's thread, so why not ride the 90s PoMo vibe a bit further and look at what he has to say.

Paul tells the story (not a metanarrative) about how his entry into politics in the 70s found him among feminist, anti-racist, and LGBTQ activists motivated by the fight for equality, and who took their theoretical bearings from Marxist and Marxisant New Left figures. From this they derived their sense of (in)justice. The point being the comrades active at the time didn't need our fashionable French trendies or anything remotely postmodern to get on and do their politics business. Paul writes "Postmodernism was the slave ideology of neoliberalism; a justification for our atomisation; the denial of objectivity and a profound anti-humanism." This is as much a hatchet job as saying Marx was an economic determinist who forecast absolute immiseration or, worse, was a devout Hegelian with communist verbiage. Postmodernism is much more than a desktop folder kept purposely adjacent to the trash for theory one doesn't like. Indeed, it's debatable whether PoMo is an ism at all - at least where philosophy and the social sciences are concerned.

Taking cues from Jean Francois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson, it's worth thinking about postmodernism as more a feeling and an imaginary than an 'ideology'. Lyotard called his book The Postmodern Condition and Jameson subtitled his Postmodernism with or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. It is also worth noting hardly anyone ever referred to themselves as a postmodernist. Foucault said he didn't know what postmodernism was, Deleuze didn't like it, Baurdillard and Derrida hated it. Were the thinkers most closely associated with "the postmodern" being tricksy and playing silly language games in foreswearing all responsibility? No. Their philosophy was not relativistic let alone nihilist. It was about uncovering the complexities of a social world accustomed to peddling stories, narratives and, if you will, ideologies, that smothered and denied this basic fact. If others wanted to write popular guides and introductory texts to postmodernism to hit academic publishing quotas while distorting the positions of poststructuralist thinkers, well, that's hardly the fault of our Kristevas and Guattaris.

Time for a brief look at the postmodern according to Lyotard and Jameson. In the Postmodern Condition (which, interestingly, Lyotard dubbed his "worst book") he noted society had moved into "postmodernity" characterised by the mass media, computers, and the post-industrial economy (as opposed to the modernity of factories, mass (uniform) production, and the dominance of industrial (physical) labour), the shift from material to the production of symbolic and linguistic goods, and the reconfiguring of culture into a confusion of overlapping and multiplying language games. The irreverence and horizontalism of the new cleaved into the old, incorporating some and memoryholing the rest. This anarchic spirit includes science too. As he famously wrote of science's relationship to the stories and myths culture tells itself,

Science has always been in conflict with narratives. Judged by the yardstick of science, the majority of them prove to be fables. But to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game. It then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status, a discourse called philosophy. I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject or the creation of wealth … Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives. (1984, p.xxiv)
After years of assaults on experts, the untramelled propagation of capitalist realism, and the rise of rag tag and bobtail conspiracy theories, does nothing affirm the acuity of this statement more than life since the turn of the century? For his part, Jameson makes similar arguments in his Postmodernism, albeit from a Marxist viewpoint as opposed to a fuzzy hinterland bordering the historical materialist corpus. Simply put, Jameson's diagnosis rests on a symptomological survey. Postmodernism is a culture marked by the collapse of representation, whereby the complexity of the social becomes too much to be straitjacketed in dominant political forms and previously established cultural tropes. This is also a culture of spectacle and surfaces, of subsumption and complete commodification. In otherwords, the endpoint of the culture industry diagnosed by Adorno and Horkheimer - underlined by the complete collapse and erasure of the high/low culture distinction. History is cancelled and the present is everything, buried by the twin eruptions of ignorance and history fictions, which gesture toward the "truth" of the past or offer completely simulated histories without a referent. This leads to a culture that is neither stratified nor sorted, but one open to and exercising schizophrenic relationships with itself. Ideas of boundaries are hopelessly obsolete, and the very notion of depth or hidden meanings is naive. And as if underlining the two-dimensionality of the postmodern, much of its movement can only be experienced on the flatness of the screen. For Jameson, this comes with a new emotional register: an emphasis on and privileging of intensity. Any moment is open to flashes of pain, joy, offence, and mourning, sustained by a culture of incessant overstimulation, the public display of feeling, and an injunction to share. This proceeds to the background thrum of machinery and processing power, allowing for new combinations, generation of, and reproducibility of culture, in turn covering and smothering everything with the postmodern sensibility. The postmodern then is glitzy and kitschy, garish and fabulous, unoriginality chasing the new, the eternal return of nostalgia, and an irresistable, unconscious tendency to the unserious and parodic. For Jameson, the postmodern is pastiche.

As a broad brush overview of the culture of the 1970s onwards, it's hard to say this is not the case in the advanced industrial societies. Lyotard and Jameson are not arguing for relativism, but are simply noting it's a facet of everyday life. Therefore science is not impossible, but is perceived as one discourse among many. This, the whole phenomenon of the postmodern condition, is not the responsibility of The History of Sexuality or Anti-Oedipus, or doing the deconstruction do to scientific texts - as the arrogant and ignorant Intellectual Impostures by Bricmont and Sokal suggests - but the outcome of social development. Which brings us to Paul Mason's second gripe with "postmodernism" - its anti-humanism.

Anti-humanism is not the same thing as anti-human. It is rather the philosophical position, and the default commonsense in social science in the 21st century, that human beings - sometimes referred to as bodies - are socially and historically constituted. There are no essences endowing people of particular "types" with pre-social characteristics of the spiritual, biological, or psychological kind, and what human beings (or, to be in more tune with Deleuze, becomings) think, feel, and do have histories and are always, at all times, conditioned by the complex of social relationships bearing down, structuring, and enabling their agency. This is further muddied by the fact what is "human" is, as per Lyotard's and Jameson's remarks, is mediated by technologies and transformed by them. For those Marxists who find this unconscionable and too close to Althusser's notion of history without a subject, think about Marx's position on commodity fetishism: how relations between people appear as relations between things and, ultimately, how one thing - capital - has a horrifying efficacy of its own, compelling billions to act as if it is alive and driving social development. Humanism, on the other hand, is an ideological and essentialist excretion that clings to materialist theory and needs scraping off - not because close readings of Marx and the operations executed via For Marx and Reading Capital are fun times, but because humanism distorts and obscures social analysis. As Andrew Collier pointed out in Socialist Reasoning, the crimes committed by sundry Stalinist regimes were given ideological cover by their victims not matching up to some idealised proletarian, or the standards expected of socialist citizens. We see it in less tyrannical forms on the left too with the privileging of the ideal worker/activist and how those who fall short of the virtues projected onto them, such as working class Tory voters, are somehow not working class, or how raising criticisms makes a comrade a renegade. Humanism so understood is the application of a set of values or positions to groups of human beings prior to the work of analysis and, from the standpoint of generating useful social theory that might guide action, is utterly useless for doing so.

All said and done, the postmodern condition is with us and, if they must be referred to as postmodern theorists, the legacy of trendy French thinkers remains. But this is good. Considered in terms of social theory, was the emphasis on difference and multiplicity such a bad thing? Of course not. Inseparable from the postmodern condition in philosophy and the social sciences was the breakthrough into mainstream debates of voices and experiences hitherto excluded from them: women's voices, postcolonial voices, diasporic voices, LGBTQ voices, disabled/impaired voices. The ground zero for many of these interventions were feminist debates in the 90s, where this reconciling of difference with a politics of liberation was taken much more seriously than the self-appointed guardians of Marxism, who mainly ignored them. And what has been the result of this engagement? The resurgence of an open-ended feminism. It was reconciled because of the foregrouding of experiences. Talking up differences brought out the commonality of women's oppression and, particularly, the systematic inequalities enforced by patriarchal power - hence the feminism of the new wave is relaxed about issues of difference because the movement knows what it is against and what it is for. A similar sort of thing is happening now with the politics of class. The predisposition of the rising class of workers to socially liberal values largely innoculates them against the divide-and-rule identity politics of the right, while a conscious awareness of their collective interests are forging bonds of commonality. Corbynism in this country and new left movements elsewhere, combined with new patterns of becoming show this process is still at its beginning, but one pregnant with imminent potentialities. Why else are socialist and, whisper it, communist politics coming back if not symptoms of an emergent collective consciousness?

Postmodernism, in as much as it is a thing, or a trend in social theory has cleared the way for a new materialism and hosed away metaphysical schemes bound up with and supportive of prevailing patterns of domination, power, and capitalist realism. It might have been difficult to apprehend this at the time, but from the perspective of 2020 with its stark inequalities, pandemics, and looming climate disaster the first returns of postmodernism are now banked and we can get on with understanding the world in all its complexity. Otherwise, how can we hope to change it?

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Saturday 19 December 2020

Boris Johnson's Tier Four Fears

I've given up trying to fathom the depth of my hatred for the Tories. Every time Boris Johnson opens his mouth, the antipathy sinks deeper and deeper, and this was no less the case with this evening's press conference. Having traded barbs and banter with Keir Starmer at PMQs in which Johnson accused the Labour leader of wanting to cancel Christmas because, sensibly, he was calling for tougher Coronavirus restrictions, now Johnson has gone cap in hand to the nation for forgiveness. Thanks to surging infections in London and the South East, tonight will see a new tier introduced along the lines of November's second lockdown. Irony of ironies, the Prime Minister finds himself horned by his hubris as tier four means no unnecessary travel, the closure of non-essential retail, and no meeting up for Christmas. So much for all those plans he was encouraging people to make.

Why are we here then? The rapid dissemination of the new variant Covid-19, which is up to 70% more infectious than the "original" strain but, thankfully, appears to be no more severe nor more resistant to vaccines, is to blame. This is what's driving a huge tick upwards in infection and necessitating a tougher approach. What Johnson conveniently fails to mention, which naturally the stenographers and courtiers of the loyal hack pack did not pick up on, was how the second lockdown was full of holes and the existent three-tier system is pretty anaemic. Insisting on keeping schools open, when the teaching unions were spelling out how this was preparing the grounds for a public health disaster, undermined the efficacy of the lockdown. Opening up colleges and universities, and letting students circulate around the country while insisting on a minimum of in-person teaching sessions was a case of precipitating catastrophe. And allowing pretty much everywhere outside of tier three to open themselves up following the second lockdown, unsurprisingly, saw infections shoot up.

Will the introduction of tier four work? Despite the problems of the last lockdown, infections were suppressed up to a point before plateauing and charging again. By limiting mobility at a time of mass migration out of the cities to here, there, and everywhere visiting families for the festive period, Johnson is going to be calling on the luck of all the talismans he can muster that this pushes the R number down. After so many rash promises, neither the Tory base nor many in the marginals are likely to be impressed. The tier four zone covers London and the Home Counties, and naturally if people - especially young people - can't fan out from the capital this will have knock on effects on Johnson's popularity everywhere a family were expecting loved ones. Having escaped accountability for the government's actions so far, hiding behind the new variant and pretending it's responsible for the sudden about-turn was the most natural and predictable course of action. Whether it works, time will tell. But useful to note Johnson announced this after the last pre-Christmas Saturday shopping spree took place.

As said many times before, public health has played second fiddle to the politics of public health. Since the first lockdown, the business support schemes, and the furlough programme - now extended to April on the last day of term - the Tories' primary concern has been the preservation of labour discipline and rentier capitalism. Those falling outside their "generous support package", so genereous this is repeated at every possible juncture, are left to the mercies of destitution and food banks with no recourse to help or, in some cases, the pathetically inadequate Universal Credit. Where the life and limb of millions have brushed up against the interests of the miserable sectional concerns of the Tory base among employers and landlords, the latter have won out each time. And yet even here, there might be trouble at the mill. Despite Johnson serving his class and their petit bourgeois hangers on, junior lieutenants on the backbenches rumble with grumble. Even here, there's only so much foolishness and incoherence they can take. Might this be the final straw then, the moment where finally the Tory coalition starts cracking? An awful shame it's taken a terrible toll, much of it preventable, to bring us to this point.