Tuesday 30 June 2020

What I've Been Reading Recently

It's time to reveal what books I've managed to get through these last few months.

Sex, Gender, and the Conservative Party by Sarah Childs and Paul Webb
Defenders of Ultramar by Graham McNeill
Small Men on the Wrong Side of History by Ed West
The Autobiography by John Major
Nemesis Games by James SA Corey
An Ice Cream War by William Boyd
Will of Iron by George Mann
Revelations by George Mann
Fallen by George Mann
Solar by Ian McEwan
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
England, Their England by AG Macdonnell

This list shows up the frustrations of lockdown. I remember thinking there would be plenty of time for even more reading when all this started. Three-and-a-half months later and only a fraction of the normal consumption has presented itself to my eyeballs. Book writing only makes up for some of this. I guess waiting around for trains takes up more time than I thought.

Looking at what has been read, I suppose what leaps out are the graphic novels by McNeill and Mann. These four collections are from the Warhammer 40k universe, which was something I was into back in the early 90s and revisited several years ago. Sadly, none of these novels are particularly good: the characterisation is pants, the storylines very A to B, but the star of 40k has been the unremitting grimness of the setting. If anything, these books are exercises in lore building, which I suppose might satisfy the devotee. Moving on from grimdark to grey, John Major's autobiography was very interesting - but that's all I'm going to say about it because the jolly old book talks about him at length and, in particular, his policy contribution to neoliberal governance.

Fingers crossed there will be more books to reflect upon in three months time! Have you been reading anything interesting recently?

Image Credit

Saturday 27 June 2020

What is the Point of a New Left Party?

Seeing as Keir Starmer is gearing up for a confrontation with the left following Rebecca Long-Bailey's sacking and despite what's in the best interests of the Labour Party, debate in and outside of the party has started thinking aloud about a new one. This would be a complete waste of time, whether the objective is to replace Labour with a mass socialist party or something modest like a 'left UKIP', an organisation of limited electoral appeal but viable enough to keep Labour from straying too far from left wing policies. As a wise voice points out, "If you spent the TIG years laughing at how they were going to lose their seats because the name recognition lies with Labour and not individual MPs how do you square that with the desire to have left Labour MPs break away now?" Quite. Let's think this through.

Anyone serious about either projects must reckon with history. The old, official Communist Party failed miserably in elections, only getting three MPs elected under its name in its 70-year history and, at most, a couple of hundred councillors. It was able to build significant influence in several trade unions but this withered as trade unionism changed and went into decline. The Independent Labour Party, which disaffiliated from Labour in 1931, had three MPs elected in 1945 and gained another the following year in a by-election, but they were all swept away in 1950. Militant was later to have success in the 1980s with three MPs, but these were only elected because they were Labour candidates. The Scottish Socialist Party had six MSPs elected in 2003 off the back of the anti-war movement, but that was thanks to the list PR system used to elect half of Holyrood's members. In 2007 these gains evaporated. And lastly George Galloway was able to get himself elected in 2005 and in the 2012 Bradford by-election as Respect's sole MP. This is your lot - it's gone from bad to worse since.

A question of the electoral system? Well, yes. But not the whole story. When you look at the left alternatives and formations of the last 25 years, whatever potential they had were hobbled by infighting and sectarianism. The Socialist Labour Party was strangled at birth by Arthur Scargill's failure to, first, reach an accommodation with Militant Labour (as the Socialist Party then called itself) to break the mould of sectarian politics, and then a subsequent witch hunt against anyone not to his liking. The Socialist Alliance was destroyed by the little Lenin syndrome of each of its two main participants, as was the case with Respect and latterly, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. This was forbidden from developing any life of its own by its principal sponsor, the SP. Indeed, the two largest Trotskyist organisations on the British left have undergone profound crises of their own - the SWP has its grotesque culture of leader worship to blame, one which saw it embroiled in covering up rape and sexual assault. And the Socialist Party preferred implosion to an honest accounting of, to everyone else, its obvious fallibility. Left Unity, an attempt to cobble something together in the early years of the decade sans the SP and SWP failed thanks to the double whammy of unseriousness and playground trottery. Last of all, the Scottish Socialist Party ekes out an existence doing nothing in particular - Tommy Sheridan's bitter legacy continues to cast its shadow.

Because these failed doesn't mean new initiatives are predetermined to follow their path, right? The issue all these organisations share was a failure to build a mass base. The CPGB, SSP, and Respect were able to acquire some aspects of one but this did not reproduce itself as a stable constituency, nor were these organisations sufficiently rooted to the point where they could shape their base. Leadership matters, of course, but the propensity for sectarian and unaccountable petty elites to emerge grows the more insulated they are from wider struggles. Take the British far left as a case in point: the bulk of their activism is not around workplace struggles, campaigns or what not, but the reproduction of their organisations themselves through petitions and paper sales - which tends to reinforce their distance from the class they aspire to lead as opposed to merging with it. This makes building a sustainable base difficult because this work is always prioritised. If they want to begin breaking out of this ghetto, a fundamental rethink and reorientation of their politics is required - something the far left as a collective have avoided since the CPGB's foundation.

Then we have competitors. I don't believe Keir Starmer or his people understand the composition of Labour's base, its dynamics and movements, nor its trajectory. The Labour Together report doesn't change that, despite the diplomatic nice words said in its direction by the leader's office. As Keir pivots to the right and the base starts fraying, there's an opportunity to intersect with activists and voters left high and dry. Indeed, and the Greens and Liberal Democrats (if they have any sense) are well-placed to scoop them up. They have activists, a proven (modest) record of electoral success, and are superficially attuned to the concerns of a chunk of Labour's new core vote. The SNP shows what happens when Labour loses sight of where its base is. How can a new left party that doesn't even exist and enjoys zero name recognition offer credible answers and be considered a good punt for the extra-Labour curious? Look at the state of the latest new left party, George Galloway's Workers' Party. Consciously a "patriotic" party that attempts to combine Brexity nationalism with Putin apologetics, and an undisguised (and unironic) admiration for Joe Stalin and all his works, it makes you wonder who it could possibly appeal to - apart from aged tankies nostalgic for the time before. It's embarrassing, frankly.

Let's park these issues to one side and consider the strongest argument from history in favour of a new workers/new left party: first past the post has locked all small parties out of parliamentary representation, but this was the case when Labour was founded. And yet Labour came to replace the Liberals as an electorally viable party of government in spite of the high bar of entry. True, true. But how did this happen? It involved alliances of convenience with the Liberals in certain seats and, oh yes, the small matter of a rising labour movement locked out of mainstream political representation. In the 2020s the situation is completely different. Trade unions aren't barred from political entry - most of them are satisfied (at the moment) with Keir Starmer nor is there much grumbling among the now growing membership about him. And besides, the contemporary work force is highly individuated: true, we have a rising cohort of the new working class, but their institutional expression was found in Corbynism. With its dissolution, its attachment to Labour is much more conditional. Good news for a new party, then? Well, no. Because it is more diffuse and harder to organise, even with the coronavirus crisis set on polarising the UK's political economy further. Its less conscious and confident sections are more likely to lapse into despondency and abstention than get angry and organised. We saw it happen last December, and it can happen again. In short, the conditions for a new party for the replacement of Labour are simply not there.

How about a left UKIP instead, effectively an electoral pressure group for socialism? Assuming it manages to avoid all the pitfalls outlined above, how does it move from a standing start to something that makes for sweaty palms in the leader's office? It's difficult to see how. UKIP's success tapped into a consolidating (but declining cohort) of voters largely organised by the hard right press, and tapped into widespread cultural currents of racism, Empire nostalgia, and British exceptionalism. Every five years it also had a set of elections it could easily dominate as a repository of protest voting. Its threat pushed Dave and the Tories to promise the referendum and, well, here we are. What opportunities are available for a left alternative to make a nuisance of itself? Local council by-elections? Elections for the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and London? Favourable press coverage? Considering the extra-Labour left's record of strategic ineptitude when it's not busy fighting among itself, the chances of navigating choppier political waters and reaching the golden isle range from nil to Davey Jones's locker.

Last of all, what is a new party for? You can look at the existing Labour left and answer this question easily: pushing socialist policies, building an infrastructure for political education and empowerment, drawing more people into politics, holding Labour's leadership to account. Success isn't guaranteed and it's never a bed of roses, but it exists, has a mass influence, and tens of thousands of activists. It's a serious endeavour and one that could retake control of Labour's National Executive Committee this summer. Some might think it's a waste of time, the right have won the leadership so why bother, but being part of this movement doesn't preclude doing things outside the party. Nothing is stopping anyone giving up dull party meetings and getting stuck into workplace or community activism, for example, and many thousands are going to do just that. It is not the be-all and end-all. Compared to this, what might a new party have to offer? Judging by snippets of conversation here and the odd polemic there, those arguing for one desire a space of the like-minded where they aren't sabotaged by their own side and feel it would be a better use of their time. That's fair enough, but let's not kid ourselves here. This is a project for building a social club or, at best, a sect no different from everything that has gone before.

If people want to leave Labour, fine. It's up to them. It is nevertheless better if comrades stay, even if, for totally understandable reasons, they choose not to actively participate and concentrate their energies elsewhere. This is simply a basic fact of the political situation we find ourselves in, this is our reality. A new party at best is an irrelevance, and at worst a means for disorganising the left further.

Friday 26 June 2020

The Sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey

Trust your scribe to be hit by a temporary block. It's a good job how then it's not necessary to say something when someone else does it better. And so, in that spirit I recommend Daniel Finn's excellent article about what happened.

And here's a discussion from last night about yesterday's events.

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Keir Starmer's Softly-Softly

Some very quick notes on the Labour leader's approach to "responsible" oppositionism.

1. It's working. Or it seems to be working, if you're using polling as a measure of success. On the whole, they're demonstrating convergence as the gap between Tories and Labour narrows. Also, for someone who was only known to weirdo politicos and those who followed the Brexit process closely, the public are warming to him as they put him on a par with or slightly above or below Boris Johnson in the best Prime Minister stakes. Remember, Johnson still has the wartime crisis inflating his support. Last of all, as much as some Labour people are grumbling recent polling data shows many more Labour supporters approve of the strategy so far than disapprove.

2. While it's good to see the polls move, we're abutting one of those tensions at the heart of Labourism. Playing the statesman is obviously Keir's strategy, and believes keeping the criticisms of the government's awful record restrained will get him a hearing among some voters Labour has to win back. And you can see where this comes from. Before the election politics was paralysed and polarised by Brexit. A lot of ordinary punters were fed up of seeing politicians slanging and wrangling at each other over issues that were esoteric, technical, and appeared like procedural games for their own sake. Keir is desperate to avoid being perceived as playing politics in order to cut through to those who "protested" this by voting Tory.

3. This is still the beginning, and so Labour are peeling back the soft Tory vote. Reducing Tory support further requires much more than the softly-softly approach. Some think attacking the left is the route to the magic kingdom, or dumping commitments to universalism can get things moving. Yes, but at the cost of destabilising and dissipating one's base and making winning a general election more difficult.

4. Recalling Ed Miliband's leadership, for about the first two or three years Ed was very reluctant to commit Labour to anything. The danger for Keir Starmer is if he combines that ill-fated strategy (which, you might remember, appeared to work for a time as Labour led in the polls) with a reticence to criticise and condemn the government, the party runs the risk of acquiring a reputation for dithering. And, for its leader, the perception he can't do his job. In short, voters do expect opposition to be an opposition after a period of time. If it's not forthcoming, they'll have you down as weak, useless, and not worth bothering with.

Image Credit

Tuesday 23 June 2020

Thatcherites against Austerity

From time to time the lion does lie with the lamb. The latest report published by the Centre for Policy Studies is one such occasion. The Centre was founded in 1974 by the blessed Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher to put right wing politics on a sound footing and push what was then referred to monetarism, one of the key doctrines in the family of theories we now refer to as neoliberalism. It's doubly weird to find them then publishing a report fronted by Ayn Rand fan Sajid Javid arguing against austerity. The former chancellor says, "as the Government puts together a stimulus package, it is essential that no stone is left unturned. Boldness, as well as out-of-the-box thinking, is the order of the day." The boldness this most Thatcherite of Thatcherites is talking about are not more cuts or assaults on trade unions, but more public spending and more state intervention. What a topsy turvy world we live in.

The report makes 63 recommendations, which I'm not going to recount in depth here. Life is precious, after all. But there are standout items of interest. The first few rules in their chapter on tax, spending, and borrowing is an mixed bag, doctrinally speaking. They advocate a cut to the taper rate to Universal Credit, which means workers will lose less benefit for every pound they earn over their work allowance. But this is followed by a refreshingly Thatcherite call to look at efficiency savings in the operation of the state. It also calls for tax reform shifting away from taxing incomes and profits and more of a focus on the progressive taxation of property. The report also suggests a property revaluation for Council Tax, making it a three-year rolling process that keeps up with house prices.

Then comes the Keynesian bit. It advocates exploiting cheap borrowing to prioritise national infrastructure projects predicted to do the most to boost GDP and employment. The national investment bank, a friend to have graced the last three Labour manifestos (four if you count the semi-private green bank that popped into Gordon Brown's ill-fated programme for a second term), surfaces here. As does a new fund designed to specifically invest in strategic sectors of the economy. Lots of money for roads and fibre optics too. There is also an interesting localism agenda here, which includes giving more power - including borrowing powers - and expanding devolved authorities. In case the Thatcherite faithful reading this were to start having palpitations watching their beloved dogmas go up in smoke, there's something here for them too. Javid and co. want to bring back development corporations with the powers of a planning authority, thereby circumventing the democratic input of local authority scrutiny committees. It also, predictably, calls for the relaxation of planning laws ("Review permitted development rights to allow more work to be carried out without going through the planning process", p.38) and allow for redefinitions of the green belt: perpetual Tory holy grails.

On jobs and investment, the two big eye-catchers are a one year cut in VAT, which would encourage consumer spending. And temporary reductions to employers' National Insurance contributions, something Tories have long regarded as a "jobs tax". There's also a moratorium on regulation, including a questionable call to relax regulations on childcare provision. It calls for a temporary "labour market programme" for young people in areas of high unemployment, which sounds suspiciously like compulsory workfare; scrappage schemes for cars and boilers, "tax efficient" vehicles to encourage inward investment and as many post-Brexit trade deals as possible. Rounding it all off are reviews of the Bank of England's remit and, interestingly, abandon inflation targeting (more here).

Thatcherism, but not as we know it? I guess a lot of it depends on how you approach Thatcherism. If you treat it as a set of ideas and assumptions about how economies work, and what government needs to do (or not) to keep the ship on an even keel, then this is not a Thatcherite programme. Sure, there is suspicion of regulation and a nod toward public sector inefficiency, but privatisation and cuts are off the cards, and there isn't an attack on workers' rights in sight. The emphasis on "sound money" and the war against inflation are absent and, for Mont Pelerin's sake, it even makes the case for a more generous social security settlement and a cut to indirect taxation. If this was 2015 other right wing think tanks would have attacked the shebang as a Marxist shopping list. As materialists, however, we do know a bit better.

Readers might recall how Javid fell on his sword rather than subordinate himself to Dominic Cummings before he got the chance to deliver a budget. What eventually did emerge from the briefing case of Rishi Sunak, centrism's newest pin-up, was a set of plans not dissimilar in inspiration or scope to Javid's recommendations. Again, on the surface, they appeared to owe more to Ed Miliband than the departed Margaret. But those, just like these proposals, privilege the preservation of capitalist relations, of ensuring any programme of recovery is able to get through a period of shock - for Sunak, it was a hard Brexit, for Javid it's coming back after coronavirus - without the bourgeois class taking a hit. This is why, despite superficial similarities, Sunak, Javid, and the rest gazed upon Corbynism with horror, because its path to recovery involved tilting the balance of class forces away from the bosses and their state, and toward working people and their families. To coin a phrase.

Javid's plan is cost neutral in terms of ruling class power. Lopping a few pence off VAT and allowing people on Universal Credit to keep more of their benefit are hardly concessions capable of enhancing the collective power of workers, welcome as they are to those feeling the pinch. And this is where there is continuity with Thatcher. Her programme set about recasting class relations, and one that succeeded through physical confrontation with the labour movement and a huge process of centralising the state system under the (relatively) untrammelled authority of the executive. Javid's proposals amount to a programme of dealing with an economic crisis grown out of a biopolitical crisis, but in a period where bourgeois power is dominant. Thatcher wanted to assert the pre-eminence of capital. Javid wishes to preserve it. Looked at this way, it's not so strange then that a bunch of Thatcherites have gone all Keynesian on us. It's a matter of class and class power, and just like their celebrated heroine they'll push whatever policies and initiatives they deem necessary to save it.

Image Credit

Monday 22 June 2020

Activism vs Labourism?

Since Keir Starmer's election, thousands of left-wingers have left the Labour Party. It was bound to happen, but that doesn't make it any less painful for those of us sticking it out. Nor does shouting at those who've cancelled the subs and torn up the cards do anything to remedy the situation. We need to think about why people are leaving. Now, this might seem like a ludicrous question to ask: the reasons are as different as one member is to another. Some think the election of Keir Starmer renders the party beyond the pale for the positions he's taken (or not taken) so far. For instance, putting out a statement after the far right ran amok in London weaker than Boris Johnson's was surely responsible for a few cancelled subs. Other reasons might conclude the left lost, we blew our chance and there's no way of winning the party over. Why bother when other matters need attending to?

This then is a question of disappointment and coping with setbacks, but it's also an attitude that is inconsistent across different areas of intervention. Think about street politics. Black Lives Matter mobilisations have proven successful in shifting public opinion about racism, and has forced a partial recognition of this country's rotten imperial legacy. But think about the recent history of street activism: it's often thankless, police hostility is an occupational hazard, and wins are few and far between. Yet most leftists who've recently left Labour wouldn't think about giving up on them. The same is true of community activism, which can be tedious, long-winded, not go anywhere, and the odds appear stacked against you. Or trade unionism with its labyrinthine bureaucracies, faction fights and more than its fair share of tedious meetings. Workplace organising allows a respite from this but that too is often exhausting and frequently fails. And yet activists carry on doing all these things, despite setbacks and knock-backs, even if your work has been and will continue to be undermined by people ostensibly on your side. Why is the Labour Party considered differently for a large number of comrades?

It's a matter of identity, or rather the dominant type of identity nearly all political activists subscribe to. In his 1996 book, The Search for Political Community, Paul Lichterman argues the turn to self-fulfilment in Western cultures has led to a more individuated understanding and practice of activist commitment. As he put it, "the culture of self-fulfilment has made possible in some settings a form of public-spirited political commitment that … [can be] practised in a personalised, self-expressive way ... some people’s individualism supports rather than sabotages their political commitments” (p.4). Therefore, while organisations and collectives can be the vehicles through which one does activism, everyone's politicisation is personal. Well yes, talk about obvious. How is that new? What differs from activism prior to the rise of what he terms 'personalism' is the individual self as the ultimate reference point: all we have is our bodies, the sense apparatus of our experience and is manipulated, positioned, determined, and inscribed upon by the ceaseless flow of social process. As such, the activist self is reflective and self-critical and values individual expression - it is the one tool each of us have for pressing our politics. For example, one reason why many new Labour members during the last five years found party structures stultifying and sclerotic is, a) because they are, and b) they are a product of a different culture pre-dating personalised politics. The cultures are more or less alien to one another.

If the individual is the vehicle of politics, it tends toward organising with the like-minded on a voluntary and less formalised basis. What holds collectives of activists together are affinities, not senses of mutual obligation in the traditional, communitarian sense. Therefore, traditionally Labourism might scrap over this or that committee, a selection, and who gets to run the board in canvassing sessions but rarely is the efficacy of what is getting done questioned. Personalism however extends its self-criticality over all areas of practice and questions the basis of why we do what we do.

This has a number of consequences when it comes to Labourist activism. The first is Labour is institutionally incapable of making an honest accounting of itself because the party is compromised. Not only is it a proletarian as opposed to a workers' party, and therefore the political home of waged and salaried strata in tension with each other, it has historically attracted the support of a section of the business class and, like all mainstream parties, an organisation of the state. Labourism, at best, represents the interests of all working people within the terms of British capitalism and the UK state. Reinforcing Labour's institutional conservatism is its electoralism, a predisposition to meeting and accepting the electorate as they are. Persuasion is limited to how bad the Tories are and how Labour can do a better job, not propagating ideas, radicalising and empowering voters into becoming political actors. Reflecting on the Labour Party is always a political act because it is inseparable from assessing or, if you're in an institutionally privileged position, denying the play of power dynamics. Just as a certain, recent effort at coming to terms has explicitly shown.

What Labourism tends toward is unthinking instrumentalism, technocracy, and "what works", which fits its conservative disposition perfectly. If Keir Starmer plays the game and gets the poll ratings, then we're heading in the right direction. Regardless of how dubious a position might be - going authoritarian on law and order, throwing tenants under a bus, unconvincingly waving the flag of St George - if it wins votes, it's good. Well, we know it's not good if Labour wants to hang on to its base. But this is largely invisible from an instrumental point of view because it's votes, not members, and certainly not the invisible assembly of classes and class fractions underpinning the party that matter.

If politics then is an expression of individual commitment and is bound up with identity, then there is a fundamental incompatibility between the dominant mode of activism and Labour business-as-usual. Leaving Labour therefore is entirely the appropriate response to a leadership not really interested in changing things, and will cooperate and compromise with forces fundamentally at odds with the constituencies we are from and, crucially, the values and beliefs core to our activist beings (and becomings). Sticking with a party whose leader is a knight of the realm and wants to get back to worshipping "success" and social mobility offends one's values, and runs the risk of being seen to condone such craven nonsense. Fair enough.

Perhaps though it's time for a bit of a transformation in left activism, one building on the cultural dominant of personalism and injecting some instrumentalism of our own. As compromised as Labour is, as much as it is part of the state system, Corbynism did enable the radicalisation of hundreds of thousands of people and has a long tail whose consequences will make themselves felt on politics, one way or another, for years to come. There are new opportunities for struggle opening up to move Labour more toward a movement as opposed to the straight electoral party model, a path that can empower and win power. Even if comrades who have left or are edging toward that door disagree (and chances are they do, otherwise leaving wouldn't be on the cards), then the relationship to the party can be thought differently. As Lichterman noted, the personal commitments of contemporary activism tends toward affinity groupings with others. When Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a leadership candidate and particularly during the 2015-17 period, hundreds of thousands moved into the party or became active supporters because of an alignment of politics. Corbyn is no longer leader, but the left is still present. To stay in the Labour Party now doesn't have to mean an endorsement of Keir Starmer's politics and other vapid nonsense, it means supporting the left and helping us keep the positions we've taken in the party - and could take in the immediate future. It doesn't even involve a a great deal of commitment if someone would prefer to get stuck in doing something else - a postal ballot here, an AGM or selection meeting there is hardly a time sink or, for most people, financially prohibitive.

Lichterman is right that activists tend toward others with similar values and orientations, but affinity isn't sufficient to consolidate a position over a long period. Our activist cultures need to integrate a sense of instrumentalism, an appreciation of organisation, and a pragmatics of struggle for us to realise the strengths of personalism and properly unlock the left's collective power. After all, the values might go to the cores of our being, but we need to ask an instrumental question of them too - what's the point if we don't take the business of socialist struggle seriously?

Image Credit

Sunday 21 June 2020

Danzel - Pump It Up

As you get older, there are certain songs you suddenly find liking after a period of years. This is one of those tunes.

Saturday 20 June 2020

Labour Together: A Compliment to the Left

Yesterday, we saw how the Labour Together inquiry into the party's 2019 election performance was lacking in certain areas. But what pleases is how its conclusions point at the best way of dealing with the situation we're in. For instance, the standout question the strategy chapter asks is "We need to understand the coalition of voters whose support we must win to form a government." Hoo-bloody-ray.

The report says,
Labour’s current voter base is narrowly formed demographically, centred in cities and is largely liberal, culturally open and historically remain-minded. While there is still further scope to increase turnout amongst younger voters, many of whom did not vote in 2019 but did in 2017, this is necessary but not sufficient in order to win an election.
You didn't need to undertake an inquiry and commission a load of polls to find this out. They might have asked the left who never stopped talking about this (me, ahem, included). That's why it's the height of stupidity for Labour to push policies and party lines that might alienate our new base, thanks to our them not, in the main, having a deep affection for the party but support it because it, at least under Jeremy Corbyn, supported them. Having established kicking our electorate is a bad idea, where does Labour pick up those extra votes?

Having got a polling company to do the maths, Labour Together sketch out three possible strategies. The first is winning back the seats we lost by emphasising the Blue Labour rubbish, but running the risk of splintering Labour's new base and dumping us below 2017's result. Exactly right. The second involves what Charles Kennedy unconvincingly called 'tough liberalism', or what we might recognise as reheated Blairism: going hard on law and order but making clear you're still socially liberal. This could win back some former voters but unlikely to reach the Brexity-types for not being convincing-enough authoritarians, and also drive off some of Labour's base for not being liberal enough. Ouch. The alternative to these two is the hard road of, well, building out these contradictions: "The message of change would aim to enthuse and mobilise existing support and younger voters while at the same time being grounded in community, place and family, to speak to former “leave-minded” Labour voters." Building this requires an adroit and savvy leadership.

The good news is the Labour Together focus groups bringing together small town remainers and urban leavers found common ground. Revelation alert, they want Labour to be for things as opposed to just against things. It goes on to say Labour needs to offer security and the prospect of change, but be related to where people are. Top one nice one sorted as the kids used to say, but how do we go about building a strategy like this and pulling it off? Going where people are is one, which involves the shadow cabinet doing listening tours all over the UK. Okay. More interesting is the (belated) realisation Labour is part of a movement, and that perhaps mobilising it for such an initiative is a good idea. Well, yes, but why limit it to getting bums on seats for a Nick Thomas-Symonds appearance?

This would be a good moment to dust off one critique of Labourism or another, because it's all about letting the politicians front everything and activists having walk on parts as canvassing fodder, and voters as, um, voters. Chapter nine of the report was therefore a a genuine surprise. An emphasis on a relational as opposed to a transactional approach, Labour doing things other than vote-catching to build up this position of trust, fitting every second order election into a long-term plan building to the main event, an overhaul of party practices (hear, hear), thinking about how the party and the wider labour movement can come together to empower communities, and a serious approach to workplace organisation. Yes, you heard that right. We are getting close to a realisation that Labour has to take a class approach to organising, and to winning. Pardon me as I splutter my coffee.

This is all very encouraging, and the strategy chapters are worth reading if you don't bother looking at the rest of the report. However, we need to be mindful of a few things. While setting out what Jeremy Corbyn had in mind when he talked about Labour as a movement, any strategy has to anticipate institutional inertia and resistance. I'm not necessarily talking about sabotage, which is to be expected, but the fact party culture is election focused and little else. To Labour Together's credit, they talk about the importance of political education but unless it is pushed from the top, from affiliates, and from a cadre of members themselves, it will be a dead letter - a good idea pushed to the side as the next round of voter ID calls. And the second is, well, the leadership. Keir polished up his labour movement creds for the leadership contest, but since then they've gone back under the stairs with the dust pan and the bags of spuds. There's nothing to suggest he's going to try being anything other than the Mr Competent and Mr Technocratic routines we've seen this far. Still, we're only in the foothills of his leadership, but the signs aren't encouraging.

Yet there's an opportunity here for the left. We know organising, and we know Labour has to be more like a movement for it to win. This report drips with our ideas, written up and awarded the badge of wonky respectability. Perhaps the Corbynite left should treat it as a compliment of sorts. And an invitation.

Image Credit

Friday 19 June 2020

Labour Together's Diplomatic Silences

Labour people have a simple way of separating those worth listening to from those who aren't on social media platforms. If someone says "it wasn't because of Jeremy Corbyn, it was Brexit that killed us", they very obviously knocked on zero doors. Likewise, if a post claims the referendum was irrelevant and Corbyn was responsible for doing us in, then the author's experience of canvassing was limited indeed. I suppose then the Labour Together report is welcome for backing up the evidence of activists' senses. There's nothing especially revelatory in the report - Ed Miliband's summary flags up long-term issues various Labour folks have banged on about for years, including this blog. Therefore, I don't think it's necessary to revisit them as we've talked about them before and, given the character of our present leadership, will doubtless be talking about them again.

That said, there are a few things missing in this account. The report tells us about the popularity, or lack thereof of Jeremy Corbyn, and provides graphs aplenty covering 2017 and the lead up to the 2019 election. While true, this was not some Durkheimian social fact warranting neutral observation and notation: Corbyn's ratings started off bad and for the following four years he was systematically screwed by the press and the broadcast media. You don't have to take the word of an embittered factionalist as gospel, repeated content analyses proves it. This matters. The power of the newspapers is thankfully waning, but broadcast media takes their cue from the editorial offices and in turns determines what are the main political issues of the day. Not addressing this basic point, which the authors know is true, does undermine the scientific creds of the report.

Perhaps this is related to the second thing that goes unexplored: "factionalism". When this is bandied about by mainstream commentators and politicians they're talking about the left. Everything from blocking right wing trolls on Twitter to asking people to vote for a left wing NEC slate is not on. What factionalism never refers to how the right behaved, from its apparatchiks to Labour MPs who, from day one, did everything in their power to destroy Corbyn's leadership. They said it was a going to be a disaster, and worked tirelessly to make it one. What the report's authors mean by factionalism is something of a symptomatic silence, so let's spell it out. The media was stacked against Corbyn's leadership, but it was Labour MPs from the Deputy Leader down who gave them the attack lines, leaked the documents and highlighted the weaknesses: they enabled the onslaught, and were the ones cheering when Labour seats fell - if they were able to save their own skins. There is a ridiculous school of thought that suggests none of this matters, as if voters would look upon the political equivalent of a chimps' tea party with indulgence if it wasn't for Corbyn. Why then did Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell obsess over media management and use carrots and sticks to make sure MPs toed the line, particularly before 1997? Perhaps it has something to do with fractious parties not winning elections?

Labour Together's assumption of a diplomatic silence gets in the way of reckoning properly with the impact of Brexit. In 2017 Labour deftly killed it as an issue and denied Theresa May the election she wanted to fight. Had the party adopted the 2019 positioning then, she would be the one presiding over an 80-seat majority, with Boris Johnson a high profile and annoying back bencher. Following that election Corbyn should have moved quickly to affirm Labour's backing for a negotiated settlement, such as Norway Plus. This would have anchored Labour to an exit, but the softest possible exit. Instead it was left ambiguous which gave the second referendum/remain-at-any-price crew room to start driving Labour's policy. This was a failure of his leadership, and easily his most catastrophic mistake. Yet he does not bear this cross alone. No one forced Labour MPs, including the current leader of the party, to bang the drum for remain. Nor were they forced into backing a referendum campaign that not only aimed at driving a wedge between Corbyn and EU-friendly Labour voters, but in fact later split over the issue. Brexit was a battering ram, alright. Johnson wielded it to collapse the so-called red wall seats, but not before the remainers had used it repeatedly to pulverise the party's standing. The appalling EU election results and the panicked adoption of the second referendum was the result, and the Tories got the election they wanted on the ground of their choosing.

We'll look at what the report says about future strategy tomorrow, but I'm not holding out much hope for keen insight. The reason for looking at politics as it really is, for soberly and honestly addressing our achievements and failures even - no, especially if it upsets and makes for uncomfortable reading for those who would prefer delusions - is so we don't repeat the past. While the Labour Together report is right to point out the failings and mistakes Labour made and stress the importance of long-term processes, it lacks an explanation of why the party expended so much effort struggling with itself. It's understandable: Ed Miliband, Lucy Powell and friends don't want to point fingers and their diplomacy is an effort to present something that cannot be dismissed lightly. Indeed, they were not entirely innocent parties in the nonsense of the last few years. But if your analysis misses the one thing that ate away at Labour for over four years, destroying its coherence and its electoral chances, then you're not preparing the party adequately for when it comes back. Because it will. In their own ways, Blair, Gordon Brown, and Ed were each destabilised by elements of the Labour right. What's going to stop them from doing the same when they think it's Keir Starmer's turn?

Wednesday 17 June 2020

Stoke's Racist Lord Mayor

Ah, racism. How Stoke has missed thee. Nine years ago the British National Party were banished from the council chamber when, prior to the 2010 general election, Nick Griffin had proclaimed Stoke the jewel in the BNP crown. Well, sucks to be them. But the stench has never fully gone away. Every so often there's an unwelcome waft of the recent past when some councillor or another says or does something. For instance, the City Independents - when it was (ostensibly) the senior partner in the coalition running Stoke - put forward one Melanie Baddeley for the office of Deputy Mayor back in 2015. The problem was she sat for the BNP during their height and, at that point, had never accounted for racist past deeds.

A one off then? Perhaps. If you was feeling charitable, you could put this down to political naivete. There was never anything much holding the City Independents together, apart from the desire to be the Big I Am and antipathy toward the local Labour Party. Not long after Baddeley's appointment was derailed her co-councillor in the Abbey Hulton ward, one Richard Broughan of the United Kingdom Independence Party, made his presence felt after tweeting a "joke" about the deaths of 71 refugees in Germany. Can you guess what happened next? UKIP decided he was too much of a racist liability for them, and out the door he was pushed. Only to wind up sitting for the City Independents. He lasted until finding further controversy as a sex pest and a drunkard. He ended his political career as the sole elected official for Anne Marie Waters's For Britain. Thankfully Labour's Jo Woolner had the satisfaction of taking his seat last May.

Lightning sometimes strikes twice, okay? But how about three times? Cllr Jackie Barnes entered the chamber at a by-election in 2012 after issuing the most ridiculous manifesto I've ever seen. It fulminated against cervical smears, plagiarised crap Facebook memes, and had nudge nudge, wink wink innuendoes about "proper Stokies" littered throughout. Still, it got them the seat and I suppose it was logical it would serve as their programme for the 2015 local elections. Success breeds success, right? Five years on we're still awaiting the promised tea set and package tour. But hey, madcap peccadilloes and weirdo policies are no barriers to getting elected in Stoke-on-Trent. Anyway, to pull things back from this necessary tangent Cllr Barnes, who is presently the Lord Mayor of our fine city has added herself to the City Independents' ignoble record on matters racism.

Our so-called first citizen has excelled herself reposting fake news, sharing the "White Lives Matter" statue bullshit of the self-proclaimed 'Proud to be British' Facebook group, and the meme that did the rounds exploiting the memory of Lee Rigby - one that has been publicly attacked by Lyn Rigby, his mum. The Mayor's feed is peppered with this sort of nonsense, the usual "immigrants should be grateful" and whites under siege idiotics. Again, if one was charitable you could put this down to stupid boomer edgelording flipping the bird to the "you can't say that!" liberal in their heads, but then we have stuff about the golliwogs. When you consider all this together, the manifesto she stood on, and the dubious record of the City Independents on racism, the conclusion is obvious: she is racist.

The question is what the ruling coalition are going to do about it. This is not the first time racist posts and endorsements on Jackie Barnes's Facebook feed have been flagged up, but the City Indies don't care and neither do their Tory coalition partners. There is no electoral price to be exacted one year on from a famous victory, and so the eyes stay shut and the pall of silence seals independent and Tory lips. Pathetic. Damning. And for both parties, most revealing.

Image Credit

Tuesday 16 June 2020

On Hammering the Left

The victory of Keir Starmer in Labour's leadership campaign was always going to revive a genre of writing on the right: the need to smash the left. In between extolling the virtues of markets and attacking trade unions, former Blair aide John McTernan is a frequent exponent of this school. Just don't call him a Tory. Tom Harris, one of the worst MPs ever to grace the House of Commons for any party, has called on Keir to do the same from his Telegraph berth. And on Monday, Rachel Sylvester took time out from admiring right wing authoritarians to wind up the klaxon in The Times. The message is always identical: reckon with the left, smash the left, bury the left. But why? What does it matter to a hard right cheerleader like Sylvester to give a shit? In short, to stabilise the Labour Party as another establishment party safe for business interests, state institutions, and aspirant careerists who'll guarantee the status quo as they ascend through the ranks.

There are a couple of things here. It's no exaggeration to say the liberal side of the political establishment greeted the election of Jeremy Corbyn with a nervous breakdown. Their destructive and scabby behaviour from the very day he became Labour leader was a symptom of the implosion of a world view, of the impossible happening as tens of thousands appeared out of nowhere and charged into the Labour Party. Their trauma of losing to a mass insurgency was compounded by 2016 and the double blows of losing the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump. The forces of liberalism were swept aside by the very antithesis of a smooth and "grown up" politician in America, and the nice liberal Tories like Dave and Osborne were out of sorts once Theresa May and her commitment to a hard Brexit took the reins, followed in short order by Boris Johnson. For the first time, liberalism as a political tendency was very much subordinate in both the two main parties and had to (incoherently) resort to combinations of parliamentary rebellions, street campaigning, and reinforcing a rejuvenated Liberal Democrats to scramble back into contention. Keir Starmer was part of this tendency, albeit that choosing to engage with Corbynism. This meant he was in a good position when its humbling finally happened, and took advantage of his proximity to Corbyn to present himself as a Corbyn-lite continuity candidate.

From the standpoint of their politics and position, this makes obvious sense. If only the left had proven as hard nosed, determined and focused while it had the levers of power in Labour. Winning back control by any means necessary was the first step, purging the left to make space for the party's rightful masters is the second, yes? However, where the right are kidding themselves is the idea a bout of bloodletting against the left led from the top is going to prove popular. I can understand the logics, which come in two flavours. Single out and boot out the troublemakers to improve the party's standing. In this respect, the imminent EHRC report into anti-semitism provides a useful pretext, and would get polite applause from the very press Keir is courting. And also taking on one's internal opposition burnishes the old toughness credentials. When Tony Blair provoked a fight over Clause Four, it reassured the Tory media that here was someone not about to threaten their class interests in the most modest ways, not that the wider public needed any convincing - Labour had held double-digit polling leads since the UK crashed out the ERM. And we saw recently how Johnson's Brexit at any price strategy cohered voters because his picking a fight with remain-inclined MPs in his own party and pledge to flout the law demonstrated determination and, something we don't normally associate with Johnson, seriousness of purpose. In other words, both Blair and Johnson performatively fostered division with a very clear and well framed objective in mind. Keir Starmer hasn't got that.

In many ways, nor does he need to. The left are divided, most union leaderships are content with Keir and are happy to see the back of Corbyn, and the right have a majority on the NEC for now. Even more helpful from his point of view is, as forecast, sections of the left decamping out of exhaustion, disillusion, and disgust. This is an issue the Labour right faced a year ago - if members leave, so the possibility for a comeback gets harder. Or, fast forwarding to today, if leftists leave the easier it becomes for right wing candidates to win NEC elections, local council, devolved government, and parliamentary selections.

The other issue is a certain amorphousness of the left. Despite Momentum having 40,000 members and ignoring the idiot scare stories, it behaves neither like Militant, nor as a socialist version of Progress or Labour First (sadly). The last four years endowed it with little political coherence, apart from defending Corbyn, and in the wider party it is well thought of thanks to its huge campaign days and matching activists to seats. Any partial action taken against Momentum would not lead to a quick clean victory, but would drag in supportive unions and threaten to paralyse the party with infighting - just as those swing voters are looking afresh at Labour thanks to the leader's coiffured appeal.

This is far from the only cost. As noted the other day, steering right has consequences. And in this respect, being seen to purge the groups of people in Labour who've been sticking up for renters against landlords, for black people against coppers and fascists, for emergency workers against a the government, Labour runs the risk of setting off corrosive negative multipliers. We know the Labour right like to project, so they think the average Corbyn-supporting leftist is a social misfit with a well paid job and zero ties to the world outside of the politics ghetto. In fact, disproportionately the left are made up of rooted activists who, in modest ways, help form political opinions and occasionally affect political leadership in their workplaces and areas of activity. They are precious for cohering the party's new base. Without them we wouldn't have done so well in 2017, and last year the result would have been even worse. Going for a wholesale purge as advised by the Tory and Tory-adjacent friends of Keir would collapse Labour's chances at the next election to zero, and severely damage the party as a going concern. Perhaps ... just perhaps this is why they're recommending it?

During the leadership election, Keir made a great deal out of being the unity candidate. On that basis a large number of erstwhile Corbyn supporters were brought on board and have gone on to provide a mass pro-Keir base in the party that is mostly soft left as opposed to right, or even soft right. Now, some might think this doesn't matter. He's the leader now and the membership can't do anything to force him out. Which is true. Yet any anti-left moves will provoke a reaction, be it an exodus and the partial disintegration of Labour's vote, a turning of layers of his support against him, increased support for a left under siege, and the risk of damage to the party's image and, crucially, his own. If Keir Starmer has any sense the press cuttings demanding purges should be filed under 'pay no heed'.

Image Credit

Saturday 13 June 2020

Fascism as the Politics of Decay

It is a truth universally acknowledged that social movements provoke into being their countermovements. The labour movement and fascism. The third and fourth waves of feminism, and the so-called alt-right. Black Lives Matter and a disturbing, gibbering menagerie of violent cop stans, the KKK, and every two-bit racist from society's effluent pipe. Here, last weekend's welcome action against Edward Colston's likeness has provided the far right a new cause to latch onto. Casting themselves protectors of our precious heritage, a few hardy souls camped out overnight to guard Robert Baden-Powell and Capt. James Cook from the left-wing threats existing in their minds. Hope they didn't get a chill.

And then there was London, today. The fighting with the cops, the racist chants, the seig heils by the Cenotaph, the harassment and attacks on anyone who wasn't white, this didn't drop from nowhere. It didn't happen because Black Lives Matter happened. The far right are a persistent feature of British politics, and in recent years there has been much to encourage them. Since the beginning of last decade, hate crimes have more than doubled, with a marked acceleration between 2015-16 and 16-17. What on earth might have happened then? *innocent face* Since, nationalist rhetoric has ramped up, along with overt state racism, scapegoating has become official policy in the Tory manifesto, a uniformly racist Tory press carrying on being racist, a subset of celebrity for whom fame is inseparable from racism and so-called anti-woke politics, and the utter demonisation of parliament's most consistently anti-racist figure by an establishment for whom a poisoned politics and the hardest of exits from the European Union is preferable to a mild redistribution of wealth. As much as the establishment protests their innocence and liberally condemns a white riot, they can't fling their plague seeds hither and thither and not expect them to sprout.

The mainstream then have emboldened the far right, and the Conservative Party continues to do so. Why else were the far right, in-between swigging beer, shouting Nazi slogans, and pissing on memorials to dead coppers, voicing their support for Boris Johnson? Why do they think they're on the same side? Johnson overcame his customary torpor to fire off a speedy denunciation, but polarising the electorate and pushing Brexit as an explicitly nationalist project (so much for "Out of Europe and into the world!") has got us to this situation. As recently noted, fascism in the 21st century turns towards identity politics. It offers a performative masculine violence against despised others, a studied and contrived attempt to shock with anti-social behaviour, vandalism and physical assaults, and glories in war, past atrocities committed against subject populations, and a sense of grievance to "the traitors" who condemn this rancid heritage. The fascism of the street is episodic and opportunist, and is the perfect foil for violent men who have something to prove. Theirs is a power politics of destruction, a nihilistic desire to destroy for its own sake. And, as a current on the fringes, it's dying.

As Paul Mason reported earlier, those getting beery in Parliament Square were the usual suspects: ageing hooligans, some of whom were likely veterans of the English Defence League travelling circus, a couple of younger footy firms, and the usual fascist riff raff, including Anne-Marie Waters and Paul Golding. What he witnessed, he said, was the outpouring of rage for a world view that is fast evaporating. Considering all that is said about the far right getting enabled by the mainstream, this might seem like a curious point to make, but it is true. The rising tide of hate crime is precisely because society as a whole is slowly growing more intolerant of intolerance, not least thanks to the efforts of comrades like Black Lives Matter and their forebears in the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements. The social cost of prejudice, on the whole, is increasing and they know, every thug who ran amok today knows the game, in the long-term, is up. This is why they lash out, why they attack the defenceless, desecrate the monuments they affect to protect, and find a kindred spirit in a Prime Minister who offers them new wine in reassuringly familiar bottles. Their precious characteristics, their illusory sense of superiority bound to the intertwining of pale and male no longer guarantees them anything. And where does this leave them? Nowhere.

Fascism, the postmodern fascism Toni Negri wrote about, is therefore a politics of decay. As masculine and racial privilege carries on evaporating, the residue left is concentrated and poisonous. We need to protect ourselves when coming into contact, but it too dessicates and becomes dust. And it isn't long until the air carries its flecks away.

Thursday 11 June 2020

Do the Tories Fear Keir?

And the answer to that is ... some do. Every time there is a Labour leadership contest, some Tories come forward and let it be known they're super scared of this or that candidate. In 2010 David Miliband was said to give them squeaky bums. In 2015, it was Liz Kendall who sent the chills running down their collective spines. These were "endorsements" only the most politically naive would take seriously. At the time our David was on board with the "necessity" of austerity and wasn't about to offer the Tories a hard time in the Commons, and in 2015 Liz was even less likely so, given her almost total abandonment of Labourism. However, what was curious about the tediously long contest just gone was the dearth of Tories fighting to endorse any Labour candidate. Perhaps they were too busy dining out on their famous victory to notice or care.

Yet some Tories noticed, and some are worried. One of them is Gavin Barwell, known around these parts as the ex-bag carrier of the unlamented Theresa May. Tories are making a big mistake underestimating Labour's coiffured leader, he suggests, which is good news if we want to see the back of Johnson and friends in four years' time. So what are his workings?

First up, the opposition are less likely to be divided in the future. This is true in the sense he means it, that Labour and the Liberal Democrats will have a better relationship with one another. The practicalities of an unstated non-aggression pact will force themselves on acting LibDem leader Ed Davey, if he wins their eventual leadership election, but be more likely embraced with enthusiasm if someone from the left of the party is successful. Additionally, Labour itself is not about to be in the same position as it was before December's election, with confused factional messaging and the open rebellion of the parliamentary party. I doubt we'll get to the point of Blairist Borg discipline, but having a party all pulling in the same direction helps campaigning efficacy and perception of competence. After all, if you can't govern your own party you're not going to get enough votes to govern the country.

Second, Barwell appreciates the Brexit factor in the Tory vote much better than sundry centrists. This was obvious when May turned in a creditable performance in terms of votes cast in 2017, even though she lost the Tory majority. Brexit was the glue holding their declining coalition together, and helped boost it further when Johnson had a crack at it. What this election showed was how people were prepared to overlook the baggage successfully heaped on to Corbyn's shoulders as long as the party was seen to respect their referendum vote. When it became clear in 2019 it didn't, far from the promised 20-point leads Labour could expect had it gone full remain, the party instead had to console itself with the trauma of heavy defeat. Going into the election with one wedge issue, of leadership, was manageable. Going in with two was suicide. Yet without Brexit, where indeed will the Tories be? Even now after a partial collapse in trust, the solidity of Tory support still rests on the bloody minded fidelity to Brexit. Remove that, remove the Tory majority?

On his third and fourth points, Labour's path back to power does not necessarily rest on winning back its former heartland seats and could pick up more Tory seats in the South East, which would be strengthened by Keir's move toward the centre of politics. Leaving that aside for the moment, the jury is out on whether the coronavirus crisis will accelerate population movement trends. If there is any truth in the death of the office discourse, the distribution of jobs becomes less concentrated in London and the supermajorities for Labour we see stacked up in seat after seat can flow out as remote working rebalances the geographic spread of career opportunities and the London property pinch drives hundreds of thousands back to their home constituencies.

Fifth and sixth, in the eyes of the Keir-curious his response to the removal of Edward Colston's statue and to the government's handling of coronavirus is where most of the public are: wrong to simply tear down the statue minus the show of due process, but it shouldn't have been there anyway; support the government when they're doing the right thing, criticise them fairly where they mess up. Seventh, there's the desire for change, which will be hard for the Tories to affect after 14 years. Though not impossible - Johnson is proof the Tories can renew themselves in office when an (old) new face with new priorities comes to the fore. There's also the taste of the electorate to consider - after a showman, might they want sensible and boring?

Lastly, the path to a Labour majority is incredibly difficult without winning back masses of Scottish seats, but what isn't is the creation of an anti-Tory majority in parliament. A progressive coalition of some sort might work where it was a non-starter under Jeremy Corbyn, despite the comforting myths some on the left enjoy telling themselves. And Barwell is right - there has always been an anti-Tory majority in the electorate, but one divided along party lines. If it can be cohered to run in a similar direction then the chances of the Tories securing another term in 2024 diminishes.

In all then, quite a perceptive account of where Labour can threaten the Tories. Yet Barwell's focus on all things Westminster blinds him to Keir's biggest weakness. What he sees as a strength - his centrism - could act as the Achilles Heel. Retreading the old 1997 triangulation strategy might scoop up a layer of swing voters and post-Brexit refugees from the Tories, but at the price of alienating the new core constituency. This doesn't mean knocking a few votes off those London majorities, it would suppress the vote of our core support elsewhere, which would be absolutely fatal in the tight contests Barwell thinks could fall to Labour in the south. And with these voters moving/being driven out of London and the bog cities, the positive-for-Labour consequences of their dispersal is bound to be stymied. For a number of reasons, the new base does not habitually vote like the Tory core does and are more mercenary with their loyalties. If Keir cleaves too much to the Tory position on key issues, say backs landlords over renters, is seen to affirm the privileges of business and the old versus the young, or otherwise supports the present political settlement significant sections of this base can disengage completely, or boost fragmentation of the anti-Tory opposition by going Green or supporting the reinvented LibDems. They have somewhere to go, and will not be afraid of going - even if it increases the chances of the Tories getting back in.

If following the end of Brexit dominance we revert back to something like the pre-2015 situation, i.e. "normal" politics plus SNP dominance in Scotland, wiser Tories know Keir has a number of advantages that would play well when matters are less fraught and polarised. What they're blind to, however, is how conditional the Labour core is. They won't be forever, though. May and Johnson were sensitive enough to sniff the Brexit discontent in our voter coalition and worked, with differing degrees of success, at exploiting it. Looking at what remains, we should fully expect them to try and set Keir Starmer against the interests his party is supposed to articulate and prosecute. Avoiding their pitfalls means sticking up for what is right and refusing to accept the Tory framing of key issues. On this, he is largely untested but the initial signs, on internal issues, on "slapping down" MPs who talk out of turn, on renting, on confronting racism, on a growing number of little things, the initial signs ... aren't good. As such, if he persists down this line or, worse, listens to the siren voices demanding a reckoning with the left we will have the answer to the fear question: the Tories won't have to worry about a single thing.

Image Credit

Wednesday 10 June 2020

Tories and Statues

Our precious history is getting lost! blubbed Sarah Vine in the pages of the Mail. On the contrary, the unceremonious dunking of Edward Colston has done more for a full reckoning of British history than any number of government programmes. Indeed, if Vine was concerned with the warts and all story of this bloodied sceptred isle, she might have a word with her significant other who tried his damnedest to limit the national curriculum to kings and queens. Well, given their bookshelf might we expect anything different?

Still, Vine's jitters represent well the unease rippling through Tory England. The Black Lives Matter protests have opened up the possibility of a street movement focused directly on racism and policing, and as those with a memory might remember, the two have come together in riots that play out roughly every 10 years - 1981 in Brixton and Toxteth, 1991 in the Midlands and south, 2001 in northern England, and the 2011 London riots. A bit of urban unrest usually helps the incumbents look tough, but with trust eroding thanks to the Tory mishandling the outbreak there's no telling what the political consequences might be. One reason why Bristol plod took the very sensible decision, from an operational point of view, not to intervene in Colston's bath.

The Tories need a story to tell themselves, a narrative that can help cohere the base. Boris Johnson has gone for the old "protestors have a point but violence undermines the message" shtick, which was entirely predictable and, if anything, the standard liberal stock response, but another strand of Toryism wants to concede nothing. Daring to raise questions about the thin blue line, and using mob rule to impose a subaltern order on public space. Well, it's unconscionable, isn't it? Writing for Conservative Home, Charlotte Gill thinks so.

For readers of this blog, Sadiq Khan is not a name readily associated with radicalism. He's hardly blazed a trail for local government in the way, say, Labour-run Preston has, and yet the Tories can't stand him. Despite his snoring boring creds and ensuring London is open to business, in both senses of the term, the way the Tories carry on you'd think he's conniving to set up a revolutionary tribunal. Yet, hilariously if you know anything about the man, Gill has Khan at the head of an extra-parliamentary statue-bashing movement, where he's allied himself to "Twitter" and radical left. And now, weeps Gill, after Calston other monuments are getting targeted. She fears a toppling of "male statues" and an intolerance toward past deeds, "Any discussion of moral relativism, an important feature of examining the past, has been abandoned", she writes, channelling her inner postmodernist and demanding the nuance and understanding she;d never concede to others when the record of her class is up for discussion. Perhaps then she might want to think about the actual context Colston's statue was erected in, for instance, and then get back to us.

We then devolve into straightforward ranting. Campaigning against statues shows Sadiq Khan's censorious instincts! Don't you know he banned bikini bodies from London Underground advertising hoardings? Doesn't he know some of these statues are symbols of national grandeur? Doesn't like the display of women's bodies and has anti-British tendencies, you say? Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. If this mayor-sponsored foray into cancel culture is allowed to carry on, don't you know tourism might also suffer? Heaven forfend. She ends by calling on ministers to "stand up for what's fair." The government, after all have a huge majority, so why don't they use it? Ah yes, the totally healthy hunger for the smack of firm government, as long as others are on the receiving end.

Still, even Gill's hyperbolic screed wasn't enough for some, and if you want the measure of the party the comments are always a good place to look. On this one we have one commenting on "the far left" destroying "our heritage." Another whingeing about the "lies about slavery" and, hilariously, the "anti-British communist Sadiq Khan." And topping it off, another commenting on George Floyd's coffin with the oh so funny "The schwarzers love their bling...". No responses, no challenges, it's almost as if the Tories don't really care about racism, especially among their own supporters.

Ultimately, this isn't just about public order, it's about who gets to define and control the symbolism in public spaces. Statues of bourgeois patriarchs are there to remind passers by who are the sanctified and celebrated, whose history and experiences are valid and who doesn't matter. An act of erasure and smothering, petrified in stone. Monuments to forcible forgetting. From the point of view of the Tories, if the state can't determine how space is organised and used, if it cannot defend the symbolism that helps confer its power legitimacy then its authority is diminished. For them, these are the stakes - and it doesn't come much more important than this.