Thursday 30 July 2020

Is the SNP Going to Split?

With the centralised character of the British state, its concentration of political power in London, and the court media concerned with reporting on its comings and goings above all else, what happens in Scotland is often sidelined. And don't the SNP know it, having ridden these gripes and grievances to success after success. It says everything how the best known Scottish politician after Nicola Sturgeon south of the border is Ruth Davidson, mainly thanks to her Westminster-friendly countenance, game-playing, and fawning coverage. Even though she hasn't worked in front rank politics for a year. But distance and wilful ignorance on the media's part doesn't mean Scottish shenaniganing isn't important, especially as the push for another referendum poses the Tories a headache they could do without.

Basking in international adulation, in as far anyone's had a good crisis Sturgeon certainly has. Largely staying in step with the catastrophe we've seen in England, Scotland has the worst excess death rate in Europe after England and Spain. Yet her fronting up the daily press briefings and being seen to be hands on, as well as pursuing a containment and elimination strategy has played extremely well. The perception Sturgeon has handled the crisis better than Johnson is what counts, and this is likely to help the SNP to an easy victory in next year's Scottish parliamentary elections. Yet, an Alex Salmond-shaped shadow is throwing shade on this skip along the sunny path to Holyrood. Following his acquittal of sexual assault charges back in March, some commentators have salivated at the prospect of a split in the SNP between those who feel he was stitched up and those supportive of Sturgeon's conduct. Those alleging Sturgeon attempted to throw her former friend and mentor to the wolves considering the slapdash way the Scottish government went about investigating the allegations. There is added rowing over when Sturgeon knew what and when, with her and Salmond providing differing accounts, and now matters aren't helped by the Scottish government's failure to hand documents over into the inquiry. What a mess.

Immediately, the knives were out after the court case and the cry of conspiracy went up. Salmond, who resigned from the SNP when he was charged, is looking for a come back and is seeking readmission to the party and selection for a seat for next year's election. Additionally, Joanna Cherry is looking to move from Westminster to Edinburgh. Writing for The National, she said "The sad reality is that because Johnson won big in England and has an 80-seat majority, the SNP group at Westminster have less power in this parliament with 48 seats than we had with 35 seats in the previous hung parliament." Perhaps if the SNP hadn't led the charge with the Liberal Democrats in enabling another election, we wouldn't be in this situation. This is by the by. The point of Cherry's article is the idea Brexit can only be fought by pushing independence, and this (implicitly) demands a new leadership. I.e. Her and Salmond.

Sturgeon loyalists are spooked. Since the 2014 referendum, the fortunes of the independence-at-any-price wing of Scottish nationalism has waxed and waned in the SNP. There is a palpable sense of impatience with Sturgeon who, despite her portrayals by the southern Tory press, is every inch the cautious constitutionalist. She learned from the resurgence of Scottish Toryism that the timing of a referendum push is a political art, and so going hell for leather might stir up the dying embers of Scottish unionism. With politics fatigue being a thing, this is a very real danger. The hardcore nationalists are uninterested in nuance and want to force the issue. A Salmond/Cherry ticket is the vehicle of choice, but others are stirring. Perhaps the most credible of these are fronted by former SNP MSP and 55 year veteran of the party, Dave Thompson. He has argued for an 'Alliance for Independence' to stand in the list section of next year's elections, and has backing from a sitting MSP. If Salmond is blocked from standing as a SNP candidate, an alternative list is a possibility - with all the consequences that has for diminishing the party's representation in Holyrood.

Unfortunately for Sturgeon, it appears her side are unwittingly set on engineering such an outcome. Squashing Salmond is a toughie, so they've come for a softer target. Cherry's hoped-for jump back to Holyrood would be at the expense of former SNP Westminster group leader, Angus Robertson. Both are looking to get selected for Edinburgh Central. And it just so happens Robertson is a close supporter of ... the First Minister. In a move worthy of Scottish Labour's stitch up culture, a rule change for parliamentary candidates was up for consideration by the SNP NEC on Thursday evening. Prospective candidates who are presently MPs would be forced to quit Westminster if they are selected to run for Holyrood, and find £10,000 to pay toward the subsequent by-election bill. Ouch. This wouldn't present much of a problem for Cherry, but could prove off-putting for future politicians who'd want to make the move - and send a signal that any challenge to the leadership will be met by administrative as opposed to political means.

This then is where the slow burn Salmond/Sturgeon split is at. Can the SNP keep the camps together? The political differences aren't insurmountable, but we're talking about careers and place-taking. As we know from Labour's internal problems of recent years, the denial or defence of established positions can provoke the most intense and bitter infighting. Presently, Sturgeon has the apparatus and the upper hand, but if Scottish politics since the independence referendum has taught anything, a seemingly invincible hegemony can evaporate if conditions are just right. A misstep now could split the forces of nationalism and perhaps concede enough space for the Tories, now in search of a new leader, and Labour, currently in search for a political strategy, to crawl back into contention. Stranger things have happened in politics, whether desired or not.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

ContraPoints on Cringe and Humilation

A long but, as always, interesting discussion about humiliation in the internet age. Watch if you find online culture befuddling.

Monday 27 July 2020

Against the Tory Age Tax

The first week of the parliamentary recess, so what is a leading Tory to do? How about kite-flying a new policy to see if it catches a violent gust of opposition, or floats languidly in a pleasant breeze of indifference or, even better, acquiescence? This is exactly what Matt Hancock, our ever-present health secretary has decided to do. According to The Graun, one policy under consideration by the government - which Hancock is favourable toward - is introducing a new tax to pay for elderly social care. With the proviso that workers over the age of 40 pay for it.

Because this government, like its predecessors, fetishises choice as a good in and of itself, we are going to be compelled to choose: either pay more tax or national insurance, or be forced to take out an insurance policy to cover later costs for later care. The models for this come from Japan, which already funds social care from a 40+ tax, and Germany where contributions begin from the point of entry into work. Great news, right? At last the boil of how to pay for social care is going to be lanced and the issue can be resolved once and for all?

Well, obviously not. The first thing worth remembering is the crisis we have in adult social care now only exists because of decisions the Tories made. Over the course of the last decade, their cuts programme has seen £16bn wiped off the budgets of councils, by far and away the biggest provider of these services. This left them in such a poor state that George Osborne allowed local authorities to add a social care precept onto council tax from 2015. Which, in true Tory fashion, came nowhere near meeting demand let alone making good the support infrastructure broken up so, for example, Osborne could dole out year-on-year corporation tax cuts. He, however, was merely one in a long line of chancellors to deliberately underfund services. Between 1997-2010, adult social care spending (i.e. inclusive of people with complex needs, as well as the elderly) increased 4.3% year on year in real terms and this was supported by care standards regulation, an inspectorate, and initiatives around personalised care. Yet this was within the tax regime inherited from the Thatcher/Major years. You'll remember it, the one where North Sea oil receipts, for example, were frittered away on lowering taxes for the rich. Even under Labour spending couldn't keep up with demand because Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were not prepared to claw back the cash imposed by the Tory tax settlement. 40 years of purposeful underspending because the capacious pockets of the wealthy mattered and matter more has brought us to the brink of the age tax.

The second point is why should workers pay for it? Over the last 20 years final salary pension schemes have closed and career average schemes are now the norm. Multiple employers, public and private, have taken holidays from paying their contributions into pension pots with the blessing of governments red and blue. And to add insult to injury, across the board employee contributions have gone up for a less generous income in retirement. We see headlines about the shrinkification of Whispa Golds and Double Deckers make the front pages and front ends of newspapers and news sites. The whittling down of pensions is never deemed as important. Workers then have already lost out when it comes to old age. And then there is the small matter of stagnant wage. Pay has been flat in real terms since August 2007. On occasion, even the Daily Mail is forced to admit the rich have gained from increased productivity since the 1980s at the expense of everyone else. Effectively, without getting into arguments about surplus value, it's obvious the rich have banked wages owed to us. It's high time they coughed them up or this extra unearned wealth was put to more socially useful purposes than a fleet of yachts. Such as getting fed into rebuilding adult social care.

This is the context of the crisis facing the elderly. It is the bitter fruit of decades of systematic looting and defunding. Therefore, the Tory framing of the problem must be challenged. It suits Hancock to simply declare a funding black hole that can only be filled if we ask everyone to contribute a little bit extra. He wants to pretend we're talking about an accident of demographics, an accident of more people living longer and that's the end of it. Something must be done. The temptation, and the danger, when it comes to criticising the proposal from a "forensic" standpoint is zeroing in on its regressive characteristics to the exclusion of all else. Is it fair the 30 year old sales executive pays nothing when their 45 year old office cleaner does? What insurance company would be crazy enough to offer a social care policy that is virtually certain to pay out large sums? Important objections certainly, but limiting them to "technical" matters takes the political sting out of repeated Tory (and Labour) failures on care. Rejecting the Tories' age tax has to involve opening up their record, how they have engineered this impasse, and who's benefited from it. After all, the first responsibility of an effective opposition is to tell the truth.

Sunday 26 July 2020

Five Years of Facebook: A Rant

Social media is a fact of social life and an increasingly central vector of capital accumulation. The content generation and imminent networking capacities these platforms enable offers new ways of organising, as well as the means for indulging a bit of mass manipulation. But you don't need me to tell you this. We're not living in 2006 any longer and this is understood to the point of assuming the status of a banality. What gives then? If you permit your author a moment of indulgence, Saturday marked five years of this blog having a page on the Facebook, so while you're here why not give us a like? On the occasion of another blogging milestone, I won't be slapping my own back or giving the dusty old vanity trumpet a blow. Now is time as good as any to have a short moan about how shitty Facebook is.

As of this set of key strokes, your favourite Stoke-on-Trent-based politics blog has accumulated 5,726 likes. A modest quantity but here's the thing. While the likes have built very slowly over time the reach of the blog's Facebook page has actually declined. All thanks to the unaccountable and (usually) incomprehensible changes to the company's algorithms. Starting out sharing links on sundry groups, you would always get a good number to the blog via sharing posts from the page. Likewise, shares grown organically, to use the awful jargon, were quite healthy to begin with. Then, from 2018, material was getting regularly picked up and shared by Red Labour's page. The audience numbers were good and then, over night, Facebook changed how people see material shared to their feeds. The numbers referred from Facebook to here crashed by about two-thirds. An annoying inconvenience for me, but the impact on businesses and the self-employed who depend on stable traffic from the site for their income must have been hard.

Remember the fake news panic? Well, it's never really left us, and neither have the changes Facebook made. Finding an affected concern for community building and prioritising content from friends, those changes de-prioritised the content put out by pages and groups, and so another drop in traffic hit all groups and pages, and by extension those who depended on traffic via these portals. The problem is there's still just enough people visiting the site after the two big cuts in audience figures. Facebook remains one of this blog's main feeders, though nowhere near the levels of when the page had half the likes it does now. And so tending to it, trying to drive those likes ever higher, sharing your bits and pieces in the corners of a dozen or so groups, this all demands time but with ever decreasing returns. Not that Facebook cares. The whole shtick is premised on you sharing your content, be it a clip here, a meme there, a photo of a slap up meal, or a learned and discerning political screed. And people who pump out their own stuff will carry on feeding Mark Zuckerberg's machine because, if they want their stuff to be seen, they have no choice. Such are the labours intrinsic to the attention economy.

Facebook is a monster. The same goes for Twitter and any other social media platform. Their service is socially useful, but they simultaneously leech off the data freely given over and by their meddling with algorithms, tinkering with the interface, and introducing paid for and subscription elements they destroy the serendipitous creativity and (semi-) random connectedness that powered them to success in the first place. Just because it's Silicon Valley with its tech bros, the contrived talk of ecosystems and self-actualisation, and on trend piffle doesn't change the nature of the beast. Capitalism eats itself by cannibalising the conditions of its own production, be it digital or analogue.

Saturday 25 July 2020

On Jeremy Corbyn's Defence Fund

14.1k donors. £255,233 raised. Not bad for a few days work. The announcement from Panorama journalist John Ware that he intended to pursue Jeremy Corbyn and others for defamation has certainly provoked a reaction. Should Ware decide to see his tough words through, the monies raised on Corbyn's behalf can easily afford him half-decent counsel. Facing a defence fund of this size, perhaps the writ will not be forthcoming after all.

This talk of taking legal action is another episode in the hounding of Jeremy Corbyn, of which there has been no let up since relinquishing the Labour leadership back in April. Ahead of the long-awaited release of the report on Russia's involvement in British politics this week, the Tories' press arm smeared Corbyn as being in receipt of Russia-sourced leaks about the UK's preparedness to put the NHS on the chopping block for a post-Brexit trade deal with the US. Readers might remember Corbyn ambushing Boris Johnson with the documents during one of last winter's leaders' debates. Never mind how the papers had sat on Reddit for months beforehand and were published by The Telegraph. Does that make Johnson's favourite paper complicit too? And after all that, far from poppycock the leaks turned out to be utterly prescient.

Then we got to the hinge of the week. As expected, Labour dropped its defence against claims brought by John Ware and his Panorama interviewees, issued a grovelling apology and handed over a substantial out of court settlement. You don't need the keenest legal mind to divine this was driven by politics and not the likelihood of Labour winning in light of the contents of Labour's internal anti-semitism report. Keir Starmer made a simple political equation. Settle this, put the past behind us and get on with (ahem) providing some opposition. The problem is he's opened the door to other actions, such as the one currently mulled by former general secretary Iain McNicol - easy money for some now the party has admitted in court it was in the wrong. Likewise, our recent litigants could file further claims against their suspensions from the party because of the position the party has taken. And there's also the small matter of dumping on his own inquiry into the leak and its contents. In short, if Keir Starmer is so blasé about defending his own party, how can he be expected to stand up for the people it's supposed to represent?

The rapid accumulation of Jeremy's defence fund isn't just a reaction against vindictive elites, it's a protest against the Labour leader too. For the last five years Labour was consumed by some of the fiercest infighting the party has ever seen. A half decade of salting the earth Labour grows in, and we're supposed to simply forget the role those who run the Labour Party now played or blame the left. True, back in 2015 the right predicted disaster and they strained every sinew to make sure that was the outcome. Sadly, there is no reckoning for these people. Some of the worst are now out of parliament, but are stacking up on jobs and enjoying their elevation to the House of Lords thanks to Tory preferment. None of them have atoned, none of them have apologised for destroying ours chances, none have been held responsible for letting Johnson waltz through long-held Labour seats and letting him back into Downing Street. In this context, Keir's surrender is not an example of setting factionalism aside and pressing for unity, but one where he's aligned himself with them - not that there was very much doubt - and looking to strike a new balance in the party on their terms. And if this means tens of thousands leaving the party, so much the better. The defence fund is a middle finger to all that, of the little people rebelling against their party betters and hoping a just outcome can be purchased for a few quid.

Keir is not making things easy for himself. With papers full of keyboard warriors demanding reckonings with and purges of the left, he needs to remember more is at risk than an army of enthusiastic door knockers, but of losing and seeing his left flank dissipate among the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, and the sectlets. And if they go, they act as negative multipliers on their own friends, networks, and cohorts. Not all of them live in big cities and help Labour clock up super majorities, but whose mobilisation is key if the party is interested in winning over scores of marginals. There was no evidence Keir understood this basic fact when he embarked on his leadership campaign, and he hasn't shown an inkling since. Enjoy the opinion polls for the moment. The path to defeat is a long one.

Protest Stoke's Racist Lord Mayor

Last month featured a a brief post about Stoke's outgoing Lord Mayor, Cllr Jackie Barnes, and her tendency to post up outright racist and dog-whistling pieces to social media. The story made the national media and thanks to the furore her successor, Cllr Melanie Baddeley of the City Independents (and formerly of the BNP), resigned her deputy mayoralty and won't be taking over from her in September. However, Cllr Barnes remains the mayor. According to the statement occasionally sent out by the City Council in response to complaints, she has "self-referred" to the standards committee where there will be a "full investigation". For info, the standards committee does not have the power to suspend or expel a councillor and force a by-election.

Still, within the limits of the system Cllr Barnes should receive the toughest sanction at the committee's disposal. For too long Stoke-on-Trent has had a problem with racism. Those voters who supported the BNP throughout the 00s are still around, and the stench from its dalliance with fascism hasn't gone away. And, of course, if there was any shred of shame and decency in her veins Cllr Barnes would have matched her apology with her resignation from the mayoralty and the council chamber.

Unsurprisingly, Stoke's Black Lives Matter are not impressed. They have been in touch to share their email uniform template they have used to contact Cllr Barnes and Council Leader Abi Brown, which I'm happy to reproduce below. Their email addresses are: and


I (INSERT NAME) call for the immediate removal of Jackie Barnes from her tenure as Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent. Jackie Barnes has deliberately and wilfully breached Stoke-on-Trent City Council's Equality Policy. Her racist social media posts have caused extreme offence to many people of this city and harmed its reputation nationally and internationally.

I do not trust your Internal Standards Committee to investigate this without bias.

I demand that Jackie Barnes is immediately removed from the position of Lord Mayor of Stoke-on-Trent and her removal be publicly announced by 4pm, Monday 27th July 2020.

Friday 24 July 2020

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Conditional and Transactional Politics

We're coming up to a year of Boris Johnson in the saddle, and as I write a few dozen hacks are penning their assessment of Johnson's performance, summarising his spectacular victories and disastrous failings. Most articles will carry their banality like a gold star and contribute nothing to the accumulated wisdom about British politics. Thankfully, there are already a couple of pieces worth your time by the New Statesman's Stephen Bush, and Conservative Home's Paul Goodman. Both of whom have an insight worth reflecting on. Stephen writes that the Tories are, for want of a better formulation, a government of campaigners and future success depends on their becoming something resembling a proper government. For his part, Paul argues that Johnson shares some qualities with Thatcher and Blair: none of his opponents had or have his measure, nor know how to neutralise him.

Going with Paul's first, the polls appear to bear his argument out. The Tories are proving very resilient and, if anything, are gaining ground again. Explaining this is relatively simple. As we have seen over the decades, people identifying with a political party has fallen. Since 1991 when 41% either very strongly or fairly strongly identified with a party, from 1997 the figures have hovered between 33 and 36, with 2017 proving to be an outlier year when it increased to 39% (BSA Survey, 2019, p.191). Younger people are the least likely to identify, but when it comes to Brexit 40% alone identify either as a strong leaver or a strong remainer. As party ID, as the polprofs like to call it, is the best and most obvious predictor of voting intention, its decline makes elections more difficult to predict and the job harder for political parties. Instead, we have the rise of conditional and transactional politics. To put it simply, larger numbers of people vote not out of party loyalty but because parties are offering and doing something they want.

Cast your mind back to the carnage of last year's EU elections. At 22.4%, the combined vote of the Tories and Labour was their worst result in a national ballot ever. Why? Theresa May's deal and her extension of Article 50 allowed the Brexit Party to be the vehicle of sending our referendum-thwarting elites a message. And Labour's sensible approach hardly lent itself to easy sloganeering and the simplistic binarism of Remain to Nigel Farage's Leave, and so the Liberal Democrats and the Greens cashed in. Johnson's insight was the Tories were only ever going to win an election if they could properly align their position with an unambiguous break with the EU and being seen to get Brexit done. Hence the theatrics and chaos once Westminster re-opened its doors, and he was proved correct. The transactional promise of sorting Brexit out overrode the party identities and voting habits of millions of former Labour voters, particularly those with a bit of property, are older and/or retired (and effectively declassed), and have no obligation to vote otherwise.

Johnson and Dominic Cummings know the character of this support, which helps explain their barrelling approach to all things. For as long as Brexit is delivered, they're fine. But what happens after December? This is where Stephen is right to make the distinction between campaigning and governing. If politics is conditional and transactional, especially if the content of the exchange is symbolic and rooted in values and identity, how can Johnson set up a new range of prospective transactions? Immigration had the capacity to fill the gap and contributed to Brexit in the first place, but from this perspective it's about to get sorted via their points-based dog's dinner, and so has limited utility. Culture war stuff about lecturers and students on campuses isn't going to excite anyone outside the incestuous coterie of right wing columnists and rent-a-gob backbenchers. Johnson's challenge in government then is to offer new wares.

The problem Labour has, even though polling shows the voters like Keir Starmer so far and prefer him to Johnson, is he and Labour aren't selling anything. More worryingly his flat footed treatment of Black Lives Matter, the reticence to say a cross word about the government, and distance put between him and Labour's platforms of 2017 and 2019 runs the risk of losing its already existing support. Thanks to the collapse of the old institutions, family relationships, and workplace organisation that used to inculcate the spirit of collectivism and class consciousness, the rising class of immaterial workers are predisposed to Labour precisely because it offered a programme complementary to their interests. Their support was conditional on this, and if Keir retreats too far from these positions they won't bother. Staying home on polling day or giving the Greens or LibDems a punt is more than possible. It happened last summer, after all. The politics of triangulation are dead - if Labour doesn't go to them, then they won't come to Labour. It is that simple. Beating the Tories demands much more than just not being the Tories when the next general election comes around.

Conditional and transactional politics are here to stay. Who can make the most credible promises and be seen to deliver them has the best hope of transforming episodic support into something longer lasting. The Tories, as the governing party, have an advantage because they possess an unassailable majority and can do as they please. If they decide to do nothing with it, as per some advice to have come their way, they're in danger of throwing it all away. And likewise, if Labour retreats from the interests of their coalition of voters, they're doomed. But if both promise and deliver, promise and deliver, those party ID figures could start rising again. Do either have the wit to ride conditionality successfully over the medium to long-term?

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Brexit Was Not Made in Moscow

When things in politics aren't going your way, folks of all persuasions can lapse into the outside agitator fantasy. Forget about doing the spadework that might uncover what's happening in front of your face, it's much easier to locate and attach responsibility to some external actor of almost supernatural provenance. For the beleaguered Labour right during the Corbyn era, the membership surge was inspired and steered by the cargo cults of the Trotskyist left. For the Brexit fundamentalists confronted by a more culturally permissive and tolerant society, it's the machinations of the liberal elite who are the font of evil. And for centrist politics on both sides of the Atlantic, rather than coming to political terms with the presidency of Donald Trump or how the EU referendum was won by Leave, they prefer to believe Russian psyops on social media is responsible. For example, just look at the state of this prominent remain campaigner.

Imagine the disappointment for some as the Intelligence and Security Committee Report on Russian involvement in British politics revealed absolutely nothing. No gun smoke, let alone a gun. Yes, it said the Putin regime were a bunch of wrong 'uns, as if we didn't know that already. It also said the UK was too blasé when it came to the Kremlin's influence because we're now their number one target. Sounds terrifying. Unfortunately, the committee refused to elaborate further as we have to be careful about national security. It did concede the Russian troll farms were active during the Scottish referendum - cue the Murdo Fraser and Ian Murray chum-in calling for an investigation of this influence in the hope of tarring the SNP with the Putinist brush. However, it found no evidence of interference in the EU referendum because Theresa May, bless her cotton socks, specifically instructed the intelligence services to steer clear of the Brexit result. Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Tories' enthusiasm to look into one referendum is not matched by Downing Street's keenness to investigate the other.

Do the Tories have something to hide? To suggest the Russian state and its various actors and proxies don't try and influence elections overseas is absurd and naive. It is sinister and banal behaviour when you realise most states with sufficient capacity do the same when they think it's strategically useful to do so. You don't have to be a Maduro apologist to note similar activities are undertaken by the UK in Venezuela, for example. The Tories know that if Russian attempts to influence the EU referendum are taken seriously by any arm of the state, let alone evidence is uncovered and officially sanctified in some way means having to deal with the political fall out over potential subversion, it also severely damages the reputation of the UK as a stable fixture of the international system. Thanks to the City of London the UK is at the heart of international trade and capital flows, and one reason why many city slickers were so pro-Brexit was their belief it could double down on this outside of the "strictures" of the European Union. However, if it is shown how easily the UK was influenced by a few thousand targeted adverts on Facebook and some extra not-at-al-dodgy money for one of the Leave campaigns, its reputation for solidity goes up in smoke and with it the trust of those who run their cash through the City. That said, publicly ruling out of bounds any further investigation of Russian influence isn't the best PR for a post-Brexit Britain eager for trade deals with anybody and everybody.

Subtract the beige macs, cyphers hidden in Hyde Park, and sightseeing England's cathedrals, the Tories have very serious questions to answer about Russia anyway. Again, Russia maintains an active lobby here in Britain, just as we do in other countries via the British Council and a panoply of business interests and NGOs. Russia Today is the most obvious manifestation of these efforts, and has no problem finding useful idiots from the dregs of politics to regularly appear on its output. However, where matters are more pernicious is the extent to which Russian money penetrates the Conservative Party itself. Many a wealthy exile from Moscow, whether hanging around in London out of necessity or choice, have donated monies to the Tories. Some of these people include close political allies of Putin himself. So when Boris Johnson played tennis with the banker Lubov Chernukhin, who also happened to be the wife of a former deputy finance minister, bunged the Tories £160k back in 2014, what was said? Likewise, how much Russian money winds its way into Tory coffers via their exclusive and murky dining clubs? Despite the bravado and Russia-baiting we've seen from Tories this week in advance of the report, how dependent is the party on the kindness of oligarchs?

Russia's influence on British politics is real, and the Tories should explain themselves and be forced to open up their shadowy channels of funding. Nothing to hide, nothing to worry about as the old adage goes. But the Kremlin's influence is nought compared to those of other states - the United States and the EU immediately come to mind. Even the oil-rich autocracies of the Gulf have more clout. Therefore no one's interests are served by over-egging the pudding. Russia ran troll farms and funded posters and leaflets. In the grand scheme of things, so what? When we can explain the Scottish referendum's close result and why Dave and friends failed to convince that staying in the EU was best for Britain entirely by analysing the political dynamics in play. Whether Russia provided the pipeline to Arron Banks's magic pockets or not, this does not get away from the main point some still refuse to confront. Brexit was manufactured, packaged, and delivered here in good old Blighty, and no amount of pinning it on the Russians changes this fact.

Sunday 19 July 2020

Obligation and Class Consciousness

Helen Pidds's ridiculous article about working class Tory voters deserved all the brickbats it attracted. If you hold an artisanal pizzeria owner to be working class, then you're operating with a notion of class that is neither use nor ornament. As the piece has been commented on and mocked, we're not going on another journey around the nature of class in the 21st century - here are a couple of items if this is your bag. Instead, I want to concentrate on a throwaway comment from one of the interviewees.

Retired nurse Keith Park is the archetypal retiree I've written about so many times. Owns property? Check. Psychopathic indifference to the Covid dead? Check. Racist? Check. If my bits and pieces on the conservatising effects of age could manufacture people, out would pop Mr Park, proud bungalow owner. Okay, he's representative of millions who think alike and have the same "real concerns" about immigration, and could be anyone vox popped by the likes of John Harris or the BBC's indoor market safaris. These former Labour voters all suit because we've heard their refrain enough. To quote the Pidds piece, "He felt able to vote Tory only after burying his dad – “He’d kill me!”."

How many times did you hear similar on the doorstep and after? "Oooh, my dad would be rolling in his grave if he knew. My mum would have disowned me." Etcetera, et-bloody-cetera. It's like a layer of people were rebelling against the memory of their own parents. And they knew by voting Tory they were doing wrong. Okay, but is it important?

Yes. When Thatcher was elected in 1979, her programme aimed at recasting Britain's class relations by taking on and defeating the labour movement. Which is exactly what the Tories did. But one leg of her assault on working class solidarity was by disrupting it and creating the conditions for generating new Tory voters. Most obviously, introducing Right to Buy and turning millions of council tenants into home owners was very much part of this. This subjected swathes of working class people to the discipline exacted by mortgage holding. I.e. Meet the payments or face repossession, hence curbing impulses to workplace militancy and individuating responsibility for keeping a roof over your head. The other string to the Thatcherite bow was the privatisation programme. Selling lucrative public sector monopolies to the friends of the Tory party was the game, but marketing them as experiments in popular capitalism was the genius political move. Offering reserved but limited shares to the public was an effort at popularising share ownership, with the hope of effectively turning millions of people into petty capitalists with an eye on their modest portfolio. Share price movement yes, labour movement no. This was reinforced by implementing new conditionalities to benefits, particularly the dole, and a growing emphasis on linking education to vocational training. Taken together, these measures laid down a culturally dominant way of being: entrepreneurial, self-reliant, individuated, indifferent, indebted.

This project was, however, time limited. Eventually, you run out of the carrots. There's only so much state property to privatise and public housing stock to sell cheap, and if you carry on - as John Major, Tony Blair, and Dave did - the sell offs become increasingly meagre, dysfunctional, and absurd. The stick however, the conditions that can be attached to social security, the quantities of personal debt that can be taken on, the (neoliberal) expectations the state has when it addresses its citizens, the limit here is the extent to which a population finds them bearable. We now live in the end times for Thatcherism. Hers and subsequent governments' refusal to replenish the social housing stock, the evisceration of the job market with its plethora of part-time and insecure jobs, and flat living standards means there is a blockage in the system. Those who acquired property and shares in the 1980s and after still have them, but their children and especially their grand children cannot repeat their feat.

For those with the property, as they move into retirement the transformation of consciousness 1980s Tory strategists were banking on is now paying interest. As incomes become limited and fixed, house values for most and petty portfolios for some assume greater importance as a means of securing them against economic and political uncertainty. An ontological anxiety is their lot and anyone promising a more secure future by lashing out against stand-ins and scapegoats for their sense of unease is politically appealing. Boris Johnson and Theresa May offered this in 2019 and 2017, and Brexit promised the same in 2016. This collapse in class consciousness on the part of millions of working class people who've entered into retirement over this last decade was a long time in the works. It was assiduously deconstructed, deracinated and deposited in the receptacle of history.

The one brake on this process preventing the collapse from happening earlier was not their links to the present, i.e. the lives of their offspring, but the living relations to the past. Their parents were their conscience, a reminder not only of where they came from but their exposure to a set of values that hadn't changed: a collective and small p political culture of working class consciousness with a fidelity to local community, the union, and, crucially, the Labourist reflex. As this generation dies they fade into memory and the obligation to vote the right way dies with them. Indeed, some might have felt a frisson of transgression when they ticked the box next to the Tory candidate back in December, but ultimately what mattered more to them was feeding the fears and delusions and cruelty inculcated in them over the past 40 years.

Friday 17 July 2020

Lives on the Left

I couldn't wait for next month's new left media plug to share this. Lives on the Left is a new project by Paul Simpson looking at well-known and lesser-known figures in labour movement history, and it's fascinating. The first episode below profiles Peter Lee, a largely forgotten ex-miner, trade unionist and politician from Durham in the early 20th century. This interview with Jonathan Tomaney highlights the relationship between the labour movement and Methodism, looks at the deep roots of Labourism's conciliatory politics, and discusses how working class institutions in Durham in alliance with local government came together to empower our class - a movement ironically undercut by Labour's election in 1945.

There are 12 episodes so far and hopefully many more to come. If you appreciate Paul's efforts, he's raising funds to keep the project going here.

You can find the list of available episodes here.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

The BBC's Leftist Bias

It's another victory for the advancing armies of Wokeism. Andrew Neil, scourge of ill-prepared politicians and upsetterer of the snowflake left is done. Along with 520 jobs set to go from the BBC, his show is not being renewed and when Politics Live resumes, he won't be hosting it. Pity then not the poor workers about to be left high and dry, but Britain's under siege right wingers. Still reeling from the government's decision to make face masks compulsory in shops, their favourite journalists are as cancelled as their civil liberties. Sucks to be them. Well, no one is sacking Andrew Neil. In fact, so keen are the BBC to see Brillo's back end that it wants to give him a new show.

It's curious. When you're on the left, it's not so much an article of faith that the BBC is biased toward the narrow range of establishment opinion but rather a fact of political life. The BBC's politics coverage takes its cue from the papers, who are overwhelmingly slanted to the right, and shares the same assumptions not just about newsworthiness, but the world too. Jeremy Corbyn was, of course, the outsider par excellence and got the treatment they thought he deserved. But to a lesser extent, Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin in their turns received the same.

Yet one thing that has always tickled are the accusations of bias that come from the right. These come in two flavours. Moaning whenever a Tory politician is asked a tricky question, or someone in the Question Time audience turns out to be a Labour activist or councillor. Which is funny because those times when it's a Labour politician caught like a terrified rabbit in the headlights of scrutiny, or a Tory activist or councillor in the audience gets to ask a pointed, party political question do not register at all. None are so blind as those who do not wish to see. And then we have those complaints claiming the BBC is structurally biased towards the left. How do they work that one out?

Over the years, professional shithouses and right wing commentators invariably booked for slots on BBC television and radio like to claim Auntie is run by liberal elites. You might as well call it Graun TV. And how does "leftism" manifest in their output? Not via socialist messaging (though howls out outrage accompany most episodes of Doctor Who) or the broadcasting of communism, but ... by ensuring women, LGBTQ+ folks and minority ethnicities get a fair crack. In the last 10 years, the BBC was at the forefront of pushing high profile and good quality programming centring characters who aren't your archetypal straight white men and does not revolve around their experiences. Shows as innocuous as Killing Eve or Luther are vanguards of liberal tolerance, which is always the outer shell of militant Cultural Marxism. This is nothing new. From the unlamented ex-Tory MP Aiden Burley getting sniffy over the "multicultural crap" of the 2012 Olympics ceremony to the racists who objected to Derek Griffiths appearing on Playschool in the 1970s and 80s, the desire our media should reflect society as it is instead of how they imagine it to be tips them into states of apoplexy. This, apparently, is left wing.

Stands to reason then a balanced and non-biased BBC would be racist, sexist, homophobic, and happily run gags ridiculing disabled people. In fact, insisting women and ethnic and sexual minorities be treated equally and that, for once, white men should fade into the background is the real bigotry. In other words, what drives ludicrous and increasingly hysterical accusations of leftist bias at the BBC is the brittle character of their privilege. It's almost as if the commentators who bang on about it know they're mediocre and wouldn't have got anywhere without the right connections, a word from Daddy, and the advantages afforded by their pale bodies. And in a world characterised by galloping anxiety, especially among those who have a stake in it, a female face or an Asian face at the BBC is a cultural reminder of how they are not forever. They shrink in fear before the advance notice of their obsolescence and lash out at those they hold responsible, such as pin up hate figures on the left, or the imaginary Bolshevists plotting the overthrow of Britain from Broadcasting House.

Leftwing bias at the BBC does not exist, it is not an everyday property of British politics. But then again, the right wing imaginary has never been much interested in the inconvenience of the real.

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Face Mask Panic and Right Wing Whingeing

Wade into the shallows of social media today and you will find the thick mud of bleating and whingeing sucking at your feet. The cause is not the excess death count, now accumulating at well over 65,000 for the UK. Nor the worries about an economy in the toilet and attracting meagre, unfocused help from the government. What has united the right and had a few attention-seeking Tories tearing up their membership cards are masks.

As liberties go, the government's insistence people should wear face masks when entering shops is hardly up there with 90 day detention, or stop and search, or the Windrush scandal - real infringements our freeborn English women and men never find it in themselves to speak out against. These episodes are real tragedies, but our tantruming Tories can only carry on about a farce. The scientific and therefore the public health case for mandatory masking is unavoidable. While it does not prevent a wearer from contracting Coronavirus, it reduces the risk of transmission from someone already suffering with the disease. As we know, up to about half of people who've tested positive experienced no symptoms to speak of. As this is still the case, forcing everyone to wear masks in shops drives down the infection rate even further. This reduces the likelihood of a second, deadlier wave this winter and is a step toward its eradication in the general population. Forget the herd immunity strategy pushed at times by the government. The best way we have beating Covid-19 without a vaccine is preventing its spread, New Zealand-style. And the sooner this happens, the sooner our liberty warriors might enjoy a return to normal life.

Where then is this idiocy coming from? I'm tempted to treat it as attention-seeking grifting from the usual suspects, and it's certainly an important component of the face mask panic. There are audiences and, as we have seen, card carrying Tories gullible enough to soak it all up. But what actual principles are at stake here? Turning to Charlotte Gill over at Conservative Home, it's hard to fathom what the objection is. She notes Britain is more sceptical than other nations about their necessity, but then again Boris Johnson used the same argument to resist the lockdown. We hear Conservatives, northerners, and men are the most sceptical of all. So what? But no, what it comes down to is "having had to sport one in London most days, is that it’s infantilising and a state overreach – to be told to wear them in announcements." Bugger our responsibilities to others, me, me, me is all that matters. Chiming in on the "debate", Desmond Swayne, the pointless member for New Forest previously best known for blacking up for larks, forcefully described the masks as a "monstrous imposition." How pettily pitiful. Instead of throwing a strop, why not simply avoid going to a shop?

If this was one or two Tories and right wing commentators moaning, it could be written off as eccentricity. But it is a whole layer of politicians, opinion formers, Tory members, and others. What the bloody hell is going on? Have they lost their minds? Well, yes. But it is entirely consistent with a current of opinion within the business class, which has its corollary in widespread bloodymindedness. In an age where occasional round-robin letters appear from rich people begging to pay more tax, the flip side of the bourgeois coin is that section of capital concerned solely with its own accumulation and wants to cast off the social bonds that sustain and make it possible. Demanding tax cuts or no tax, evading and fighting regulation and government oversight, campaigning against trade unions and environmental protections, this is the section of capital stripped down to its basic, animalistic impulse. Freedom for it means freedom from obligation to the rest of society, and the freedom to accumulate forever more. It certainly does not mean any freedoms for the proles, who do have an obligation to them, which is why they are always unconcerned about police racism and other abuses of state power.

Unsurprisingly, this outlook is mirrored in the governance of our times. I.e. How we are addressed, expected to behave, and incentivised/dis-incentivised by institutions governing our lives. As self-responsible, self-reliant, and entrepreneurial beings what we have to make our way in the world are our abilities and our wits. As the individual is sovereign and our own fate is in the decisions we make, ultimately it is we who are the highest of authorities. We know what's best for us and our interests, no one else. This is the taproot of the cultural epidemic of bloody-mindedness. Trust in governments and expert knowledge is low not just because these worlds are routinely rocked by self-serving scandals and incompetence, but the cultural logic of neoliberal life. No one is the boss of me. No one can tell me what to do. No one can have knowledge and expertise that overrides my experiences and view of the world. Unsurprisingly we see this manifest itself most starkly on those who consciously embrace what are normally the unstated assumptions of the moment, and these in turn find their home disproportionately among certain layers and age groups.

Pathological selfishness simultaneously has a mass basis and a class basis. It perpetuates indifference and psychopathy, and encourages narcissistic attachments to right wing trifles instead of what's important. Which, right now, is the need to beat a disease that's taken the lives of 700,000 people. The best way to deal with this is not to go out of the way to defend the government's decision - like so many things, it has come late in the day and leaves gaping holes around workplaces and entry into any semi-public building - but public health has to come first, and right now this is best served by heaping opprobrium and contempt on the ranks of the mask-phobic and their enablers in politics and the media.

Monday 13 July 2020

The Class Politics of Points-Based Immigration

What was the main driver for the vote to leave the European Union? Trading opportunities? An end to European jurisdiction over British courts? Restored fishing rights to our coastal waters? No. It was immigration. Say it three times if you like. Leaflets with Nigel Farage posing in front of columns of refugees, leaflets with lies about Turkish accession to the EU, leaflets highlighting the country's border with Syria. These fell on ground repeatedly ploughed by leagues of column inches and thousands of broadcast hours banging about the dangers of immigration, the crime it brings, the wages it undercuts, its drain on hard-pressed public services, the dissolution of community and dilution of Britishness. The main reason why Brexit is happening is because this went unchallenged by mainstream politicians and so-called opinion formers for decades. And this is what leaving the EU really means to millions of leave voters. Lift up the drawbridge, close the borders, and magically the country will simply become a better place.

The problem the Tories have is how do they deliver the Brexit promise on immigration but without disrupting those labour intensive industries that have come to depend on a ready supply of workers from elsewhere. The Coronavirus crisis provides a solution. Their so-called points-based immigration system begins with the assumption anyone coming here is not to be trusted. Their intent is either to soak up social security and free health care, or to steal jobs and force down wages overall. Imposing a points system eliminates this danger and keeps the undesirables away, while simultaneously keeping the equation of immigration = bad things going as a bogey to frighten the support with as and when it's needed - like at election time.

Under the scheme announced by Priti Patel, once the transition period ends in December anyone wanting to live and work here must cross a 70 point threshold to be accepted in. Points are awarded for job offers over the minimum of £20k, ability to speak English, holding higher qualifications relevant to the position, and starting salary weighing in at £25k plus. In response, Labour pledged to scrutinise the proposals. Congratulations Yvette Cooper for bouncing the leadership into tacitly backing the Tories' racial politics. What caught the headlines was the exclusion of care workers from the health and care visa, which was cobbled together after opposition to surcharges the government planned to level on NHS staff from overseas. As Patel said during her Commons speech, "At a time where an increased number of people across the UK are looking for work, the new points-based system will encourage employers to invest in the domestic UK workforce, rather than simply relying on labour from abroad."

The slump and unemployment crisis allows the Tories to restructure the job market. Always contemptuous of British workers - the conditions attached to social security shows what they think of us - restricting access to the low pay for long hours care sector to prospective employees from outside gives our "spoilt" and "lazy" workers the kick up the arse they need. No longer are care jobs too good for sniffy Brits, no longer is the pay too low. The crisis in social care has been solved by crushing unemployment, not investment and the raising of wages. The same will be true of other sectors too. The so-called "jobs miracle" Dave and Osborne talked up really crammed as many people into as many low paid labour intensive occupations they could. These immigration plans, combined with Rishi Sunak's policy to create even more jobs of the same ilk indicates Boris Johnson is carrying on where his unlamented predecessor left off. Far from protecting British workers, the Tories have no intention of replacing lost jobs like-for-like and are expecting care to take up the employment slack.

Forcing through these changes aren't about to win the Tories the support of British and UK-resident workers moving into the care industry under the lash of economic compulsion. Nor are they designed too. The contempt our ruling class has for its workers is matched by the envy and fear millions of Tory supporters have of the young. Values survey after values survey shows all workers are less likely to be perturbed by immigration than the over 65s - starkly so where the young are concerned. Which is curious when you consider actual working people are, theoretically, competing with overseas workers for jobs and housing. Because something akin to a petit bourgeois consciousness is the default for the bulk of retired people, the twin promises of security and authority - as well as smiting scapegoats and confected agents of chaos - provides the safety feels. It addresses the anxiety underpinning their position in the world by directing it outward, which is then (seemingly) negated by keeping out the foreigners and giving the pampered youngsters a dose of real world medicine. The points-based immigration system is one such political technology for exploiting, solving, and exploiting these fears over and over again. It offers a sense that, perhaps, the clock can be wound back. Or at least the world can be paused.

This presents a problem for Labour so obvious even a right wing backbencher should be able to comprehend it. Accepting the government's position puts the party in a bidding war with the Tories, and it's one Labour can never win. Though, of course, it can alienate core supporters. Defusing immigration as a hot button issue doesn't mean banging on about underfunded border staff or criticising the Tories for not running a tight enough ship, it's refusing the ground chosen by the Tories entirely, challenging the myths, and taking on the scapegoating not from a position of liberal let's-be-nice-to-everyone, but on grounds of solidarity, mutual interest, and opposition to divide and rule. Something approaching class politics, you might say. The chances of Labour breaking with the Tory consensus? Not great.

Saturday 11 July 2020

Understanding University Finances

This from a series of seminars put on by the UCU is designed to help support workers and academic staff understand the finances of their institution. As such, it works well as a basic primer on accountancy and balance sheets for anyone. Well worth watching and many thanks to Amelia Horgan for giving it a push on Twitter.

Friday 10 July 2020

Why are the Tories Invulnerable?

A double digit lead? For the Tories? How can that be with their awful record, evident incompetence, and reckless intent? Okay, the latest YouGov poll is an outlier, but it shares something in common with all the others: Tories leading, Labour trailing. How then to explain this persistent and immovable lump of support for the Conservatives? What constitutes it and why isn't it eroding? Some brief sense impressions that may be expanded into something longer on another occasion.

1. We're still in a crisis. When we last had a look at polling, the absolutely huge lead the Tories enjoyed was thanks to the birth of a national spirit, of rallying around the government because it was the only institution capable of defending us from Coronavirus. 20,000 care home deaths and one unsackable aide later, there is still a layer of the electorate clinging to the Tories because they're the government. For as long as the crisis persists their faith in Boris Johnson remains. Now is not for sniping and criticising, but for rallying around.

2. Remember Brexit? I do, you do, and so do the millions who voted Tory in 2019 to make sure it gets done. Not even the small matter of a global pandemic changes their desire to see it put to bed. Johnson's continued hard ball/reckless negotiation - today refusing to be part of an EU vaccination programme - plays well to a base for whom Brexit is a repository for fantasies of all kinds. The alternative? Sir Keir might be nice and responsible and have a good suit, but they know he was a primary mover in changing Labour's position from accepting the referendum result to having another crack at it. And so they're not too interested in what he's saying and won't take a look at him until after the Brexit business is finished with and their vote can't be reversed.

3. Good old Rishi Sunak. Workers helped. Businesses helped. If you don't pay close attention - like the majority of the Tory voting coalition, whose view matters askance - you could be forgiven for thinking the Chancellor and Prime Minister have done a good job. Yes, people have fallen through the cracks but you can't help everyone. As long as the carers are caring, the nurses nursing, and the shelves are full there's nothing to worry about. And a new stimulus package and help for young people will see them through the economic slowdown. You'll notice what this has in common: distance. Experiencing the crisis at a remove, and that's because the spine of the Tory coalition are older voters generally and retirees in particular. Provided they abide by social distancing and stay out of harms way, the crisis won't touch them. They're insulated, and despite the odd snippet of Treasury gossip in the FT about doing away with the triple lock, this is how pensioners are going to stay. They're doing alright out of the Tories, they've turned out not to be as bad as everyone says, so why switch?

Image Credit

Thursday 9 July 2020

Olive - You're Not Alone

Can't believe we haven't featured this stone cold classic before. Still sounds amazing now.

Wednesday 8 July 2020

Permanently Perpetuating Polarisation

"Thanks for the meal deal, but we were promised a new deal." Quite. Still, a feeble response befits a feeble summer statement. Rishi Sunak, sans the boondoggle coffee cup, announced the furlough scheme was winding down this October as planned. But no need for anyone to worry; the economy will be motoring ahead by then thanks to the stimulus and support the government are providing. Hence, the old Tory trick of re-announcing things got another outing in the form of stamp duty cuts, cash for decarbonising the public sector, and more (largely unspecified) infrastructure spending. So far, so March.

The genuinely new stuff was ... interesting. To entice people back to the UK's beleaguered hospitality industry, there are sweeping cuts to VAT on food, refreshments, overnight stays. Everything but booze, all told, and to last for six months. If Coronavirus hasn't gone away by the end of the period (it won't have) this is likely to be extended into the new year. To sweeten the treat, the government are offering 50% discounts on restaurant meals for up to £10. "Eat out to help out" is the dubious-sounding slogan for that one. It might also help bump up those covid-19 infection rates, underlining the decision that for the Tories, class power and economics come first, public health second.

It's jobs where Sunak's scheme is going to get the most attention. On furlough, employers are in line to receive £1,000 for every member of staff who comes off furlough and remains on the payroll come February. At £9bn budgeted for the scheme, even the dogs in the street can see the problems with this. As a job protection measure, it's useless. If an employer thinks laying off staff is going to make "efficiencies" then a thousand quid sweetener will not compensate for the salary saving. What it will do is provide a bung, albeit a fairly paltry one, to bigger business and large organisations planning on bringing back furloughed workers anyway. It might help a few small and medium sized businesses if they are opening up in October, but as retention schemes go it's dismally unambitious.

The Tories' youth employment initiative is even more of a joke. Talking about "good quality jobs" without cracking a smirk, Sunak announced a £2bn fund from which employers receive £1,000 to £2,000 bungs for "trainees", who in turn will have their minimum wage salary paid by the government. The higher payment comes into play if they are taken on for six months. If it sounds like a temporary fix to fiddle the jobless figures it probably is a temporary fix to fiddle the jobless figures. A passing familiarity with past Tory workfare schemes tells you all you need to know. The rest is more money for jobless support, including work coaches to get youngster back into earning. Even now, in the midst of the greatest implosion of the global economy since the 1930s, the Tories still believe it's the wrong approach to job-seeking, not lack of vacancies that causes unemployment.

It doesn't take an eagle eye, or a forensic leader of the opposition to spot there was nothing for renters, nothing for those stuck on social security for the foreseeable, nothing for equipping workers for the future, nothing for underemployment, nothing for social care, and nothing for the mental health epidemic. It's almost as if Sunak's overall concern is keeping the low waged, low skilled, low solidarity, low protections economy on the road. Forging ahead as if Coronavirus doesn't exist, trapping younger workers in the cycle of frustrated career aspirations and denying them their opportunity to get on the housing ladder, doing nothing does do something. It perpetuates political polarisation - something the Tories have, of course, done well out of. So far.

This is their game. Keep cultivating the circumstances holding their coalition together and dish out the stats of people helped by furlough and the so-called "kickstart" scheme when they're criticised. Undercutting this demands a strategy for breaking this base apart. Sadly, there's little sign of this penny dropping yet.

Image Credit

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Covid-19, Climate, and War Communism

Yet another excellent interview from the unmissable Politics Theory Other. In this episode, Alex speaks with Andreas Malm about Coronavirus, class, and climate collapse. All the light hearted topics! Here, Andreas argues the reason why lockdowns happened immediately versus the slow burn tardiness of climate change mitigation is because, in the first place, the metropole countries were affected and it was a health crisis the ruling class could not insulate themselves from. I'd certainly agree, but I think he underplays the biopolitical dimension - Western states largely moved before people started voting with their feet and work discipline dissolved. A minor quibble. However, moving on to climate change proper Andreas suggests we need to think of mitigation less in terms of Second World War national efforts and more as so-called War Communism - the emergency measures undertaken following the Russian Revolution to defend Soviet power against counterrevolution and the armies of intervention. In other words, the longer we leave climate change unaddressed the greater the likelihood unprecedented emergency measures will become necessary.

Give it a listen. And don't forget to help Politics Theory Other out via Patreon here.

Sunday 5 July 2020

The Biopolitics of Herd Immunity

Capitalism is crippled by a crisis that is biopolitical in nature. For once, the contradictions of the system haven't exploded and sent growth rates spiralling southwards. Instead disease - an exogenous shock - attacks the fleshy bodies on which the system depends. No exploitation of labour, no commodities, hence no profits. In the UK, lest we forget, the government were forced into lockdown measures as people voted with their feet. The whip hand of the workplace was disarmed, normal life ground to a halt and the state found itself ministering necessary support for businesses and jobs, and ham-fistedly clamping down on the movement of people. Well, not everyone. Since, they've been chipping away at the lockdown. First, by refusing to insist all non-essential workplaces be closed. The aborted efforts with the schools. The gradual opening of non-essential shops. And now lifting the shutters on pubs and hairdressers before letting the rest of the beauty and hospitality industries resume. The Tories have weighed up the possibility of people contracting, suffering with, and dying from Covid-19 versus getting the wheels of commerce turning again (and their own reading of the politics) and have eased the lockdown further. They want business as usual, and are very happy for others to shoulder the risk.

Taken together then, the Tory effort was at first reluctant, is concerned above all with issues of labour discipline (see the imminent return of benefit sanctions, for example), and is actively massaging the biopolitics away from prioritising the health of bodies toward the health of capital. The latest exhibit in this strategy is the heavily briefed thoughts Rishi Sunak has been having about handing everyone £500. Sounds a bit of alright, doesn't it? When even Thatcherites recognise the importance of putting money into people's pockets, what's not to like? Well, as far as this putative initiative is concerned, plenty.

For starters, it's not filthy lucre. Under the proposed scheme, every adult is to receive a voucher for £500 and children £250, which can be spent in selected outlets - the hospitality industries in all likelihood, but also retailers - and then only face-to-face. Ordering online is ruled out. Having seen similar schemes in Wuhan and Taiwan, might it work here? Well, yes. But you can see the obvious problem. It discriminates against disabled people with mobility problems, others currently shielding thanks to chronic health conditions, and the elderly. They're much less likely to avail themselves of the government's largesse for obvious reasons. Then there are the workers as well. With £500 burning holes in everyone's pockets, not only is social distancing bound to me more difficult to manage, employers are going to pile on the pressure to make sure as many of their staff are on hand as is practicable - forget their concerns about getting stuck inside air conditioned shopping centres, stores, hotels, bars, and leisure facilities, and you can write off the worries about taking infection home. There is money to be made!

The fact this is under active consideration brings our old friend herd immunity back into play. It's all very well saying we can't have lockdown forever, but the sensible view is not to ease off when disease remains in general circulation, has the propensity to mushroom in local flare ups and the small matter of its still killing large numbers. This is where the voucher scheme and other easings off are particularly pernicious: not only do they try and re-establish the normal rhythms of discipline, surveillance, and control by channelling us back into the grooves of work and shopping, but very specifically they are designed to make the reimposition of lockdowns harder. Regardless of what the R rate says, effectively giving people free money and returning them to the shops, the pubs, the salons and the barbers, nudging the population toward something resembling normal life puts pressure on the scope and length of emergency measures where and when they're needed. Clinical need has been put back in its box. Other concerns have taken over. The capitalist normal, the axiom of profit before people, is restored.

As a piece of biopolitical management, it's almost admirable. A masterpiece of biopolitical manipulation, a class act of class politics in which dissenting voices have found themselves entirely crowded out. Not even the official opposition can bring itself to oppose. Which makes it all the more horrifying. At the risk of sounding like a cliche, a second wave is a question of when. Not if.