Saturday 31 October 2020

On Tory Incompetence and Stupidity

Another national lockdown is due to begin 00:00 hours Thursday morning and stretch to 2nd December. Seems very sensible. While a fortnight too late, just like last time, I suppose better late than never. But that's before looking at the detail. Unlike March and April, the new rules are significantly less restrictive. But does less restrictive mean less effective?

At Johnson's press conference, he said pubs and restaurants are to close though takeaway services are allowed to continue. Non-essential retail will close, and no more mixing of households. International travel is banned and domestic travel is discouraged, with exemptions for work. It's okay to go out and exercise and head into places of worship for prayers. And then there are the huge gaping holes in the scheme. Construction and manufacturing shall remain open, and ditto for schools, colleges, universities and courts. If the aim is to quickly drive the R number down so Boris Johnson can save Christmas, on these terms it's doomed to failure. The first lockdown, as late as it was, did depress infection because it was comprehensive. This half-arsed effort continues to expose millions of people by keeping the schools open and insisting in-person teaching be delivered in further and higher education.

Incompetence was certainly on display at the Prime Minister's presentation, but these pitiful measures fall short not because of cluelessness, but thanks to interests. That teachers and academic staff tend not to vote for the Tories is not lost on Number 10, but more pressing for the government is a two-fold class problematic. Keeping pupils in schools is essential for maintaining a "work ready" population. The welcome extension of the furlough scheme, originally due for the axe tonight, doesn't mean suspending the DWP's sanctions regime. For Johnson and friends, the schools staying open mean the usual sticks of their punitive social security scheme carries on operating. And for universities? It's as grubby as landlords and speculators. Rather than use monies shovelled to Serco or to the banks instead of keeping universities going in the absence of rental and ancillery services income, the Tories would rather bail out key sections of their property-owning base. And if students and academic staff die or are maimed by long Covid, ho hum.

The press conference ran nearly two hours late. According to one hack stenographer it was because Johnson was prepping furiously for this afternoon's announcement. Definitely nothing to do with persistent rumours dishy Rishi had threatened to throw his job if another comprehensive lockdown was imposed. Still, why has the government procrastinated and unnecessarily condemned thousands to an early death again? When (apparent) incompetence is persistent and ingrained, you've got to start looking to something endemic. Too many accidents don't lend themselves to accidental explanations. As with higher education, the Tories are caught in the headlights of competing priorities. They have to balance the health of their favoured sectors of capital with the wellbeing of class relations in general, but in their first and last instance this is achieved by the preservation of the Conservative Party itself. Core to this project, as we saw in the government's shabby treatment of Manchester and, this last week, the holiday hunger farce is preserving the coherence of governmental authority. This is their most precious commodity, and depends on avoiding too many U-turns lest it disintegrate. The problem the government had in setting their face against another national lockdown (and trying to make political capital out of Keir Starmer's sensible support for one), was when the necessity of the R numbers bit. Their precious authority compromised Labour's call was publicly proved the right one.

Again, why? Rising infections were an inevitability, the projections were there for all to see. Why try flying in the face of epidemiological realities? Stupidity? Parties (and for that matter, capital) do make mistakes, and as with incomptence stupidity, when it's ingrained, persistent, and collective must have a root too. And in Johnson's case, it's the short termism of running a campaigning government. As May lived from crisis to crisis, and Dave and Osborne from headline to headline, Johnson carries on this ignoble tradition. Everything is framed by owning the libs and exciting the base. Strategy gives way for reacting to today's skirmish, and promises made are not investments for the future but holding operations to kick the can of current difficulties down the road. It's not a matter of intellectual deficiency but the inevitable consequence of managing a public health crisis like the waging of a culture war.

Regrettably, the outcome of this is an incoherent public health strategy, needless infections and tens of thousands more deaths than would otherwise be the case. Demonstrating the psychopathy of Tory short-termism is entirely fitting for Halloween.

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Friday 30 October 2020

A Belated Look at the EHRC Report

The publication of the EHRC's report into the Labour Party was always going to be a painful experience. For those genuinely interested in combating antisemitism, there was uncertainty over how endemic and institutionally embedded the EHRC woud declare it to be in the party. And for those who don't care and are concerned mainly with point scoring and score-settling, they were hoping for damnation. Well, having now read the investigation, it's about as fair an establishment report into a left-led Labour Party is going to be. It doesn't condemn the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and it does draw attention to the messy, dysfunctional and oft jerry-rigged culture of the Labour machinery.

There's always a however. The EHRC's report is fundamentally incomplete. While it acknowledges (impefect) efforts made from 2018 onwards in sorting antisemitism out once and for all, it barely touches on the real problem preventing the investigation of complaints: factionalism. Thanks to the now infamous leaked report, any fair-minded observer saw how spanner after spanner was thrown into the party's workings out of political spite. On page 69, the report notes "If the scale of informal handling of complaints portrayed in the leaked report is accurate, it fundamentally undermines confidence in the fairness of the antisemitism complaint handling process." The anti-Corbyn staffers should be thankful the EHRC didn't pry to deeply into this evidence and was content to gloss over it. What this means is the report, if anything, was not thorough enough.

For example, in the report's consideration of indirect discrimination it singles out the aforementioned political interference in the complaints process by LOTO. It acknowledges cases where this was done to speed up the process and bulldoze through delays, while noting times when pressure was applied to dismiss complaints. As this disproportionately effects Jewish members by virtue of their more likely to submit a complaint, this means they were, as far as the EHRC is concerned, on the receiving end of indirect discrimination. Okay, but if this is indirect discrimination, what are we to make of the complaints inbox left untended accidentally on purpose for weeks on end, or the refusal to process complaints, or excuses found to delay action - all set out in the leaked report and in the words of the perpetrators themselves? Is this not indirect discrimination? According to the definitions supplied by the EHRC which are derived from the 2010 Equality Act, it's difficult to reach any other conclusion.

Where the EHRC report is helpful is scotching the idea the Labour Party is institutionally antisemitic. The report found a party ill-equipped and incapable of dealing with antisemitism but was, at its best, groping toward resolving matters, despite mistakes - such as the poor level of training belatedly brought in for party staff. The report also makes plain the leadership were acting in good faith, even if its efforts were somewhat cackhanded. Additionally, the report goes some way to placing antisemitism in Labour in its proper context. Of the three areas in which the party broke the law, one instance involved two cases of clear cut harassment (by former members Ken Livingstone and Pat Bromley, as a NEC member and councillor respectively) and 18 borderline cases. They say this is not exhaustive and was taken from the complaint sample of 70 cases, but as we know the total number of antisemitism complaints were still very low as a proportion of the membership. One case is one case too many, and the report helpfully squelches the idea antisemitism wasn't a problem. As page 31 notes, the files provided by the party covered cases of members who had

"• diminished the scale or significance of the Holocaust
• expressed support for Hitler or the Nazis
• compared Israelis to Hitler or the Nazis
• described a ‘witch hunt’ in the Labour Party, or said that complaints had been manufactured by the ‘Israel lobby’
• referenced conspiracies about the Rothschilds and Jewish power and control over financial or other institutions
• blamed Jewish people for the ‘antisemitism crisis’ in the Labour Party
• blamed Jewish people generally for actions of the state of Israel
• used ‘Zio’ as an antisemitic term, and
• accused British Jews of greater loyalty to Israel than Britain."

Hardly revelatatory, but worth pointing out these submissions were provided by Labour while Corbyn was in charge and while Jennie Formby was general secretary. These are not "made up" nor concocted for factional reasons - in my experience those who deny antisemitism is a problem often indulge one, two, many examples of antisemitism above.

There are the political uses of the report, and something's due here tomorrow about the unjustifiable and stupid suspension of Jeremy Corbyn. The media have talked up the examples given in the report to cast the party as a fetid swamp of antisemites, when this is far removed from its critical but constructive tone. And then there are the internal consequences of the report. In his bobbing wooden-topped signature style, Keir has declared sensible and sober discussion of the scale of antisemitism out of bounds, which is not the most forensic way of approaching a persistent and damaging difficulty. Apart from the tuss enough posturing, the acceptance of the recommendations - it's not like the party has a choice - is the right thing to do. Putting antisemitism complaints on a firm footing actually helps the goal of natural justice in the party machinery, as opposed to the customary factional (and largely kangaroo) justice that has presided in the party for so long - and what the left has campaigned against for years. This is a plus. But there are dangers here too, especially around administering disciplinary measures and who sits on the "independent" complaints' process. The left should pay close attention to how Keir and David Evans go about implementing matters.

A mixed bag but one, ultimately, that might have been avoided. 2015 found me a Corbyn-sceptic, but it was obvious antisemitism could derail the project if he won the leadership and stayed in the saddle for any length of time. Not because Corbyn was antisemitic, but thanks to certain associations and a turning-a-blind-eye by some sections of the left. We know what happened next - the alienation of the Jewish community from Labour has accelerated over the last five years, and the party's reputation was dragged through the mud. After all the unnecessary damage and pain, please let it be this lesson has finally sunk in.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

The Democrats and the Politics of Space

Making predictions is a mug's game, and didn't practically every pundit get mugged in 2016? Your humble scribe is counted among this number too. But surely, surely the leads posted from nationwide and swing state polling can be counte on and Joe Biden is on course for election. Yet there is one thing that has always puzzled me. Issues about space and space exploration are largely a bipartisan issue, but historically Republican candidates and Republican presidents, 2020's incumbent included, talk up American efforts in space and your common or garden Democrats ... tend not to. On the one hand we have Trump looking forward to new crewed Moon landings in 2024, while all Biden has said ... "We support NASA's work to return Americans to the Moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system." The space programme doesn't even merit a mention in the Democrats' manifesto documents.

Space exploration isn't a big vote winner, unless we're talking about Cape Canaveral and Houston. And on this occasion Biden is projected so far ahead of Trump in Florida that comparatively few votes around the margins won't matter. It's not a close-run thing. Yet, in 2000, it could have mattered. Ditto for 2004 and, yegads, 2016. For the Republicans, even if candidates give zero hoots about "the science" (as per a certain someone), they are not blind to how space plays to their base and the GOP-curious. For the American right, US technological prowess is inseparable from the selling of its global dominance to domestic audiences. Superiority in all areas is what makes America great and triumphant, and the suspicion among millions of voters, assiduously cultivated by the right and the Trump campaign, was the Democrats allowed this might to be frittered away - a perspective with enough truthiness for those in the mid-west to swallow it in significant enough numbers. Space also has particular resonances in American nationalism, and not just because NASA "won" the space race by popping 12 astronauts on the Moon. The idea of the manifest destiny, of expanding into the frontier and cementing America from sea to shining sea is deeply embedded in national mythology. It justified the near extermination of its native peoples, endows the US with a global civilising mission (always handy when certain interests require military reinforcement), and is also responsible for the romantic allure of the frontier and the popular cultural celebration of rugged individualism and lawlessness. Zombie culture and survivalist video games are not unrelated to this mythologising.

Space exploration is inseparable from the manifest destiny. The frontier becomes the final frontier, and the old goal of opening up the West and colonising the continent is projected upwards and outwards to the bodies beyond the Earth. It's writ backwards in the past too - the essentialist hoohah of the human urge to explore is NASA's rewriting of our species' story, with back edits of our a priori natures with jarring inserts of Americana consciousness. To stay on top and assert power, America's got to be the first back to the Moon, the first to set up a permanent presence, the first to Mars and, well, anywhere else you care to mention. It's a matter of national pride, a matter of America embodying the primordial urge to expand and settle, and also of securing markets of the future.

While the American right happily annex space exploration to their national project, it's bizarre the Democrats are sanguine witht his state of affairs. They're not the "B Team" of American capitalism in the same way social democrats and labour parties are (or were) almost everywhere else. Thanks to the peculiar character of US politics and its two main political parties, the Democrats occasionally reflect popular politics around progressive issues and can, under certain circumstances, be forced to run leftist candidates - theoretically all the way to presidential level. Simultanouesly, the party bigwigs are as establishment as they come. The Democrats are as invested in American dominance as the GOP are, and many of their foreign policy criticisms of Trump - particularly during the North Korea detente - attack him from the right.

Here then is the great dilemma. From a vote point of view, there is nothing to be lost from talking up space. Indeed, from the perspective of winning votes, leaving ceding the field to the Republicans helps cement their authenticity as custodians of national pride and ultimately America's mission itself. Nor are the Democrats squeamish about projecting US power, and invoking the idiotics of patriotism when deemed necessary. It was their martyred hero, John F Kennedy who was responsible for the Moon shot while the GOP under Nixon wound the Apollo programme down, and if protecting American assets mean militarising space, Trump's Space Force will be given the teeth it asks for. Why then do the Democrats de-prioritise space exploration and, to all intents and purposes, gift it to the GOP as one of their wedge issues? It's not often glaring enigmas can be found in politics, but here's one of them.

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Monday 26 October 2020

The Tory Attack on Unionlearn

We're in the middle of a pandemic. Jobs are evaporating and many won't be coming back once a semblance of normality resumes. With millions out of work, a lot of people are looking at retraining to switch careers. In any normal country, the tertiary education sector would be there to provide new skills packages and courses to help manage this transition. Unfortunately, this isn't our lot. We live in Tory Britain.

Unionlearn receives £11m/year from the government for widening access to retraining and education opportunities via trade unions. And by any measure, the scheme is an amazing success. According to the Department for Education's own figures, for every pound invested there is an economic return of £12.30. If it came stamped with the imprimatur of some outsourcing giant or a Tory-friendly entrepreneur, the government would sing its praises and throw more money at the programme. It doesn't and so naturally, the government are scrapping it.

It doesn't make economic sense, but it make perfect sense in class terms. To have workers organised as workers looking out for their training and providing opportunities for it is too much self-activity, too much a case of understanding their needs better than the captains of industry and doing something about it. And so out comes the plug, despite Unionlearn ultimately benefiting the bottom lines of those funding the Tory party.

Sean Dixon, a learning rep for USDAW has launched the petition below. Obviously readers should sign it, but also bring this attack to the attention of union branches and constituency parties, as well as Labour MPs. The Tories are vulnerable and a strong campaign from the labour movement speaking and striking as one can force them to retreat.

Last week the government announced cuts to the Union Learning Fund. For more than 20 years it has supported union learning projects, so working people could access education in the workplace. It’s changed thousands of lives.

Sean has started a petition to save union learning. Please add your name and support this important campaign.

I've seen first-hand the difference union learning has made to hundreds of my workmates and friends. So when I heard the news that the government planned to cut the Union Learning Fund, I was devastated.

It’s impossible to list all the benefits of union learning I’ve seen, but I can honestly say it’s changed lives. Our training around mental health helped normalise talking about it at work. People who missed out at school learnt English and maths skills they’ll have for life. And those who came to learning centres and engaged in courses came back over and over again, earning apprenticeships and higher qualifications.

At this crucial time, cuts to the Union Learning Fund make no sense. Our government should be investing in programs like this, not cutting them.

When I heard about the cuts, I thought of everyone I’d supported as a union learning rep and what they would have missed out on without this program. I thought of the workers getting our country through this crisis, who deserve an opportunity to access education and learn new skills in the workplace.

We need to show how many people care about investing in skills and education for working people.

Can you sign my petition calling on the government to reverse their decision and not cut the Union Learning Fund?

Sign the petition here:

In Unity,

Sean Dixon
Union Learning Rep

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Saturday 24 October 2020

Suffer the Little Children

The Conservative Party is having a nervous breakdown. Have sustained a pummelling thanks to their disgraceful treatment of Manchester, Labour's free school meals bill has seen them collectively stagger, punch drunk, from one catastrophe to another. Voting against the motion is one thing, knowing as they do kids regularly go hungry during school holidays, but to not let it lie is simply incredible.

Some of the arguments we saw on Wednesday was textbook Toryism. Brendan Clarke-Smith argued supplying meals was like "nationalising children", of alleviating parents of their responsibilities and thrusting it onto the taxpayer. We know facts are inconveniences for Tories, but the truth is child poverty among working families is greater than non-working families, and as we're talking more than two million families here (over four million, up 500,000 since 2010). Knowing the likes of Clarke-Smith, they're either bad parents because they do not provide for their kids, or they're bad parents for having low paid jobs.

Usually, what happens in the Commons stays in the Commons. Not this time. In a deft bit of political footwork, Marcus Rashford orchestrated an online campaign that saw (mainly Labour) councils vow to step into the gap left by the government, with businesses large and small doing the same. Awkward, but the disaster for the Tories comes from their pugnacious response. They attempted to bury the damage by whipping up outrage against Angela Rayner for calling them scum, albeit under her breath, but when the blood is up and there's an opportunity to put the boot into working class people, the Tories couldn't help themselves. Jonathan Gullis, the non-entity representing Stoke North said he'd "been contacted by schools, supermarkets and parents who are concerned some have used the £15 a week voucher on alcohol, tobacco or on unhealthy food." Of course he had. Philip Davies, the self-described "men's rights activist" accused a 16 year old schoolgirl who wrote to him of "intolerance", because saying making kids go hungry is wrong is the same as bigotry. This afternoon, North Devon's Selaine Saxby appeared to threaten businesses by saying she hoped none helping out hungry children would be applying for assistance from the government. The piece de resistance was provided by our friend Ben Bradley. From picking a fight with Marcus Rashford to saying food vouchers were fuelling brothels and crack dens and then throwing a hissy fit at a Mansfield school for refusing to back his lies, the boy blunder has had a mare. And now it turns out our illustrious leader, Boris Johnson, did not even condescend to reply to an invitation from Rashford to enjoy a food poverty task force. Yup, it's been a tough old week.

If their actions condemn them, their words damn them. Politically speaking, it's a disaster. But why was this allowed to happen? The Tories, usually Borg-like on matters of message discipline, have turned the clock back to the late 1980s. Forget emollient John Major and the touchy feely affectations of Dave, this is Toryism red in tooth and claw. Not very one nation or in tune with the line of march, according to the Prime Minister. Why is this happening, why have the Tories taken leave of their political senses?

It must be remembered no one is omipotent, and this applies whether we're talking about individual politicians, political parties as a whole, and the ruling class and capital. Mistakes are made, balls ups happen. Here it appears an absence of direction from Downing Street is the fault. Having voted against the Labour initiative, it was necessary to set the Tories' face against any backlash and not be deterred or shamed by subsequent pressure and campaigning. After all, for neoliberal governments the authority invested in the executive is absolutely indispensible and must be jealously guarded. If it evaporates, election doom awaits unless the incumbent is replaced in short order. While true, giving loose lips and itchy Twitter fingers free reign was obviously not part of any grid. Why did all this bile come bubbling up? Simple: it's the size of the majority. With no elections around the corner, or none that matter as far as Tory MPs are concerned, they're not worried about the parliamentary arithmetic. And as for support, as politics is stuck polarised around age lines, as this balance favours the Tories, and how a bit of cruelty never did them any harm, there's no incentive for any right winger to wind their neck in.

Arrogance is the root of their awful behaviour, an inevitable by-product of their senses of entitlement and feeling untouchable. There will be many more moments like this, which provoke a popular outcry, but shouting is not enough. The opposition needs to cohere the anger and either make inroads into Tory support, or suppress parts of it. Can Labour rise to the task?

Thursday 22 October 2020

Local Council By-Elections October 2020

The first set of by-elections since March! This month saw 5,601 votes cast over three local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. No council seats changed hands. For comparison with last March's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Oct 19


* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were two sets of Independent clashes this month
**** No Others this month

The first set of by-elections since the beginning of lockdown and ... they reveal precisely nothing. Two of the elections come with Scottish island weirdness. I.e. An oversupply of independent candidates and little party activity, though Labour do deserve a hand for popping its head up in the Orkneys. The one "conventional" by-election was Aberdeenshire, which the SNP successfully defended against a strong Tory challenge. While there are no lessons to be taken, except the parties ought to sort out their organisation in the Orkneys and Outer Hebrides, the good news is November has two more by-elections in store for us, both of which are SNP defences. Thin gruel for local election fans, but it's all that's going at the moment.

1st October
Orkney UA, North Isles, Ind hold

8th October
Eilean Siar UA, Na Hearadh agus Ceann a Deas nan Loch, Ind hold

15th October
Aberdeenshire UA, Ellon and District, SNP hold

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Tuesday 20 October 2020

Tier and Loathing in Manchester

Critical but unconditional support to Andy Burnham! The Tory treatment of Manchester by forcing the city into Tier Three without engaging with local leaders in good faith, withholding funds to adequately compensate workers and now refusing to deal with the Mayor in future is grotesque. The sticking point saw local leaders ask for £65m because, not unreasonably, forcing workers onto two-thirds of their salary is less generous than furlough and will see them face significant hardship, especially if they're low paid. As for businesses, they too can whistle. The anger this provokes must be allied to clear heads. When the government are coughing up £100bn for an absurdly over-priced mass-testing programme and cash is shovelled to fake companies proffering phantom PPE, there's something other than incompetence going on.

The north/south battle of recent days set up a dyamic in which the government could not be seen to compromise. The continuous thread running back to 1979 is one of authoritarian leadership. Indeed, the flipside of marketising everything is a centralising state. At first tooling up to see off pesky and uppity labour movements, later it moved to tackle alternative bases of authority within the state's institutions by abolition, muzzling, selling them off, or subjecting them to market mechanisms. Councils are one such unreliable arm of the state and different Prime Ministers have enjoyed bashing local government for cheap political points. Boris Johnson's riding roughshod over Manchester is the latest in this inglorious tradition. Unfortunately for him and previous occupants of Number 10 in recent decades, this leads to brittle government. The executive in its overweening arrogance not only dissolves opposition to it within the state system, it centres not just authority but also responsiblity on itself. And once authority is lost, the government and the Prime Minster are held responsible for everything and its position is unrecoverable. Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Dave, and May, all lost it by accident or by badly conceived design and the furies came for them. Johnson's barrelling approach to everything is the repetition and reiteration of Number 10's authority. If he is seen to climb down in a big way, such as conceding to Andy Burnham's demands for adequate compensation, or the two-week circuit breaker favoured by SAGE and Keir Starmer, a slippage in Johnson's authority can snowball into an avalanche. Being seen to win is pathetic and reckless, but for Johnson authority is all. On this there can be no compromise.

The second is, naturally, the Tory base are shielded from the hijinks. Nine seats out of Greater Manchester's 27 is nothing for the Tories when there are 71 others to fall back on, even if the 1922 Committee's Graham Brady is among the potential collateral. What does this matter for the coalition of radicalised pensioners elsewhere? Not much. And even, materially speaking, it does not impact much for elderly Tory supporters in the seats directly affected. If there's anything we've learned about the last 10 years in British politics, as long as they're shielded from cuts (or, to be more precise, feel they're shielded) the bulk of older people will merrily vote for the party kicking their children and grandchildren in the teeth. I know this, you know this, and Dominic Cummings knows this.

And by the Tory base, we can't forget our jolly old friend capital. There are no worries on this score. The petty capitals of small-scale landlordism are fine (no one-third rent cut for this most parasitic of strata), and the big interests of finance, property, and the City are absolutely dandy too. Manchester is a provincial backwater compared to the metropolis, and even if Sadiq Khan has to be stitched up as per Andy Burnham, their operations are unaffected. The speculation, debt payments, rents, and transaction fees will flow Covid or no. The only possible blip is if the Burnham-led opposition spills out of Greater Manchester and ignites generalised regionalist grievances across the north of England and the Midlands, and Labour show a deftness of foot so far lacking in its interventions to position itself as the vehicle for that opposition.

This brings us back to the authority question. For Johnson, there cannot ever be a King in the North nor anywhere else in England. If stomping on councils and metro mayors is what it takes, his blighted government are going to do it. Yet here is the problem. Authoritarians cannot live by authoritarian means alone forever, and the more he blunders about smiting all and sundry, the higher the well of resentment fills. Manchester is the latest victim. Might it be the tipping point?

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Monday 19 October 2020

A Conservative Case for Trade Unions

A Conservative arguing for trade unions? Have we tripped into an alternative timeline? No, we have not, it's just the latest missive from the try hard would-be hegemonisers over at CapX thinking out loud about trade unionism and how it might save their failing system.

Drawing on recent pieces from boring American writers, John Lloyd writes about how neoliberals of the left and right have attacked trade unions and undermined them by unpicking the post-1945 consensus. Quite, which is a reason why Blair was a bad 'un, even if you box out the calamity of Iraq and price in all those PFIs. This undermining of union power has left workers unable to organise effectively, which has seen the productivity gains of the last 40 years accumulate in the hands of the wealthy as living standards have stagnated and, as I'm writing, are going backwards. And, to dust off the frightful phrase, there is the social capital argument. The experience of active trade unionism forces workers together into collaborative relationships, and writ large across a given employer, multiplies social contacts. The workforce become more cohesive, less atomised, and the broad consequence is the building of social trust. Cynicism does not have to be the default.

Not much to disagree with here, but to make it past the Tory filters there must be a sting in the argument, yes? Sort of. Despite highlighting the point unions are "lobby organisations for the overprotected public sector" and how UK unions have come to rely on state-provided services for its industrial backbone, there's a whistful paen to non-political trade unionism. Oddly, new small militant unions like the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain and the United Voices of the World are talked of in positive terms because, at least as far as Lloyd is concerned, their militancy is grounded in the day-to-day challenge of organising precarious workers and ensuring they get their fair share. If the patchwork of society could be sewn together in like manner, especially among "lower class politics" (his phrase) then extremism can be seen off and atomism overcome. Happy times are here again.

Why is this a conservative case for trade unionism? Because it argues for an ideal-typical trade unionism that is a throwback from where we actually are. In the first place, there is nothing new about these points. Conservative Trade Unionists were a body of some not insignificant clout in the workers' movement during the 1970s and, at its height, organised tens of thousands of Tory trade unionists. None of this should come as a shock. To use a phrase from one of the old beards, trade unionism is the bourgeois politics of the working class. Pay, discipline, safety, hours, bullying, these are the everyday issues faced by union activists, stewards, officers, and branches. In a period of labour movement ascendency, like the 1970s, collective action and the strength of workplace organisation delivered results. Struggle helped worklife get better and made sure it paid more. Depending on the politics of a particular workplace, this could intersect with socialist politics and lead to Labourist or, indeed, revolutionary conclusions. But equally, in the absence of politics collective struggle becomes a means of reconciling trade union activity to the system. The rounds of collective bargaining backed by thr strike threat, or even wildcat strikes over sackings of convenors and stewards, or new working practices at their most militant might have challenged management's right to manage, but did not, by and large, raise wider questions. Even if, as was often the case, stewards and key activists were Trotskyists or from the Communist Party. Trade unionism in the post-war period might have made socialists out of hundreds of thousands, but its success ensured millions more were not politicised. This system of institutionalised class struggle worked for them.

This non-political trade unionism tended toward Labourism: trade union stuff is up to the workers, but leave the wider politics of labour to the professionals. But Tory trade unionism had the same root: the union was a place of knowing one's station in life, of guaranteeing community at work while promoting contentment with how things were. Too much militancy was disruptive and threatened workers' security and livelihoods, and this from the standpoint of the CTU was their mission: to preserve and, unsurprisingly, conserve. When Thatcher began her assaults on the labour movement, the bulk of the CTU were unperturbed: the workers' movement had become "unreasonable" and "irresponsible" and needed the state to bring it into line. The layer of conservative trade unionists and working class Tory supporters generally saw it as harsh but necessary medicine, and some were happy seeing the "disruptive" miners getting a good hiding. This famously included one Patrick McLoughlin, a working miner (then a Tory councillor, later a grandee) who denounced the strike from the floor at 1984 Tory conference. If trade unionism had steered away from politics and kept the extremists from power in the movement, none of this might have happened.

Some far-sighted right wing thinkers are alive to the importance of class struggle to their system, and not just in terms of workers having enough wages to avoid crises of underconsumption, as per the present. An active, trade unionised work force is a pain in the arse for management, but it forces them to innovate to intensify exploitation and replace workers with machines, thereby retaining control over work and boosting productivity. It's a creative tension perspective, and without it productivity stalls, low paid jobs proliferate, and we end up with something looking not unlike the British economy of the last decade. The Tory fantasy of quiescent, non-political trade unionism in the 21st century is a fever dream of a cap-doffing working class who'll happily work with them to grease the wheels and, ultimately, do themselves out of their jobs. As was the ultimate fate of so many CTU supporters in the 1980s and 90s.

A multitudinous mass of good workers who'll do their duty, shop til they drop, and inculcate a new class culture of deference, communitarianism, and perhaps a bit of "suspicion toward outsiders". Lloyd says this conception of trade unionism is "humanist", not political. He could not be more wrong. Sectional to its core the whole argument is sodden with bourgeois assumptions and the sense of a misty-eyed reactionary pining for a better yesterday. A conservative case for trade unions certainly, and one a million miles away from ours.

Sunday 18 October 2020

Coronavirus Vs Capitalism

Here's a discussion between Aaron Bastani and Grace Blakeley about her forthcoming book on capitalism after Coronavirus.

Writing will resume soonish.

Friday 16 October 2020

Jakwob feat. Jetta - Electrify

No blogging tonight because Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday sidetracked me. Yes, it's true. One should be exposed to the full fruit of human endeavour, even if it's musty, mouldy, and reeks just a bit. Now left trying to exorcise the stain Bachelor Boy and the rest of Cliff's classic oeuvre have seared on my soul. What better way than this beastie, which just missed out on last decade's top 100.

Thursday 15 October 2020

Why Did Labour Abstain on the Spycops Bill?

And the latest reading of the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill cleared the House of Commons. 313 voted for it, 98 against. Hold the front page, something's amiss. Lots of votes from honourable members are missing. The bulk of the opposition in fact. 200 MPs abstained, including most of the Labour Party under orders from Keir Starmer himself, while 34 did the principled thing and opposed - several resigning their front bench positions in the process. A New Leadership indeed.

The government's bill is a crappy, authoritarian piece of work. As Shami Chakrabarti rightly notes, the bill gives licence to undercover agents, be they coppers, spooks, armed forces personnel or from food standards and Gambling Commission, to commit crimes in the discharge of their duties. What could possibly go wrong? It's not like policing, for example, hasn't been hit by allegations of the most disgusting abuse committed by spycops. Naturally, the right are happy to handover power without accountability and shows Boris Johnson's fulsome praise for British freedoms to be piffle, but Labour? What can possibly be gained by enforcing abstention?

Writing for LabourList, Conor McGinn has had a stab. He suggests undercover work has disrupted so many terror plots, but requires a clear legal framework with appropriate safeguards to prevent abuses now and in the future. Okay, and does the bill accomplish this? No. Conor notes how the bill says state agents would be subject to the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. Okay, but the Tories are explicitly committed to rolling back the HRA and wriggling out of ECHR commitments. Second, how have these already curbed abuses and ensured undercover rule breakers were brought to book? As matters stand the rules are tissue thin now, and even this is too much as far as the Tories are concerned.

The second argument is even more specious. Conor suggests if the bill falls either the security services would be prvented from operating, or would operate without any oversight, which are terrible outcomes. Evidently, the leader's forensic skills aren't catching. Had the bill fallen, Johnson would have been forced to compromise with the opposition to try and get something through as, um, the history of government defeats over the last four decades suggest.

The rest of Conor's piece is overlong waffle suggesting he and Keir Starmer will take no lectures on spook abuses thanks to their records around Orgreave, blacklisting, Northern Ireland, and others. Clearly the leader and the shadow security minister do because nowhere does this piece explain how abstaining on the bill helps these issues come to a resolution. If anything, Conor's piece reads like something defending it.

Then we come to the final paragraph, and the cat jumps out of the proverbial. He writes, "... we have to deal with the legislation this government brings forward, and do so in a way that shows we are a responsible government-in-waiting." And there you have it. Keir and friends have determined opposing this bill would make them look soft on security issues, which contributed to Labour's toxicity among voters who went over to the Tories last year. Okay, if that's the case why not follow the logic of Conor's argument and critically support the legislation? Well, no, because this would weaken Keir's standing among the swathe of recently-won LibDem voters. As for existing Labour supporters, who cares? They have nowhere to go.

Let's see where this gets you. Labour supporters and liberals expecting Keir Starmer to take human rights matters seriously are pissed off. And those who thought Jeremy Corbyn was soft aren't about to conclude Keir is any better by parking 160-something backsides on the fence. Nor is this going to make Tory attacks any easier to fend off. "Refusing to support our security services" does not distinguish between outright opposition or abstention, unless Keir thinks Johnson's jousts are about to assume a gentlemanly aspect and he'll order his spinners to respect the nuanced difference. Literally no one is going to notice the so-called careful calibration of the abstention in the real world. Clever, clever politics becomes stupid, stupid and no one is satisfied.

Why then? Who is Keir trying to appease or, at the very least, impress with his reasonable, responisble government-ready opposition? The only ones left are the Tory papers. Carrying on his charm the press round, offering measured, process criticisms of the bill over tout court rejection, and the mandatory, effusive praise for the "vital tool" of the security services is telling them his criticisms come from a place of fundamental loyalty to the system, not outright opposition a la Corbyn and Corbynism. In return, the hope is they'll continue going easy on him, ensuring the next election is a more benign environment for Labour than the last four contests.

If this is the game, the leader, his office, and all the people he listens to are more naive about the character of British politics than I feared.

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Wednesday 14 October 2020

The Tory Uses of Scottish Nationalism

In ordinary times, the latest poll on Scottish independence from Ipsos MORI would have sent shock rippling through the Westminster body politic. 58% say yes, and 42% no - the highest support ever recorded for separation. It's not difficult to understand how. As with Brexit, so with Coronavirus, the Tories in London have treated Scotland and Wales with contempt. And while Scotland's record with the disease under the SNP have a less than stellar record, Nicola Sturgeon has proven more adroit than Boris Johnson in the handling of the crisis. For one, you don't get the impression she's chill with sacrificing people for rent payments. Under these circumstances, and with Labour nowhere in Scotland why would anyone want to stay shackled to England and its awful, self-destructive habit of voting in the Tories?

This isn't about for or against independence, but rather how the Tories might play the issue. We know one a key factor that sunk Ed Miliband in 2015 was Dave's success in associating Labour with the SNP and Alex Salmond. As an infamous tweet had it, the choice was stability and strong government with the Tories, or chaos with Ed Miliband. The, we were led to believe, was thanks to an inevitable Labour-led government propped up by an independence-at-any-cost SNP, as opposed to the painful mess and pile of bodies we actually got. It worked, though. Alongside media-confected horseshit about Labour's leader, on the doors the idea the SNP were going to scrap nuclear weapons and head off on their merry way cut through. Never mind how Labour literally burned its electoral support and organisation to keep Scotland in the union in 2014.

Fast forward to Tory strategy in the 2020s and, unfortunately, we're about to see a rinse and repeat. With Brexit on its last legs, the Tories are casting around for a substitute capable of gluing their coalition together. Culture war, raving about trans rights, and declaring war on universities are all runners and riders. Not there's a competition. All these and more are getting purporsed in the central office war room for lobbing at Keir Starmer's front bench, but none of them, either by themselves or in conjunction with others, are enough to replace Brexit as the great divider.

The prospect of Scottish independence, however, is.

Nothing would suit the Tories more than shaping politics as defenders of the UK versus the evil Sturgeon, which means banging the drum for SNP sponging off the English taxpayer, and how Labour will happily throw down the red carpet for separatist demands should Keir enter Number 10. Helping matters from the Tory point of view is the behaviour of the Welsh Government. Having taken the crisis more seriously and proven more effective than either London or Edinburgh, its threat to deploy plod to intercept cross-border traffic from disease-blasted England is sensible from an epidemiological standpoint, but politically it's grist waiting to be used by the Tories for their nationalist mill.

Might it work? We saw last year how Tory members were prepared to see the union sacrificed (as well as their own party) if it meant saving their precious Brexit. Refusing Scotland a constitutional referendum, which Labour is more likely to concede, sets up a polarising dynamic ahead of the next election. To this all the problems of Brexit can be reduced to unpatriotic parties working to break up the UK, and everything else - like the Tories' awful handling of Coronavirus and the multiplying problems around housing, crap wages, unemployment, rising hate crime, and crumbling public services - can get smothered by a Union Jack-branded fire blanket.

Forewarned is forearmed, so they say. Labour and the wider labour movement know how the Tories have played old people's identity politics for the last five years, and rode the dynamics back into office on three occasions. There is a realisation out there the party has to come up with counters to Tory strategy, but so far, so little sign. One thing's for sure. Pinning one's hopes on managerialism and "competence" won't cut it, and is about the worst way of approaching polarised politics when one side is cohered by narrow nationalism.

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