Saturday, 12 June 2021

Gunhed for the PC Engine

Capitalism not only revolutionises the forces of production, so said the grey beards, it also places fetters on their realisation. Consider the modest case of Gunhed for NEC's PC Engine. Released in Japan in the summer of 1989, a smart vertically scrolling shooter would be hard pressed to find a better name. It's immediately no nonsense, and the misspelling - lost on Japanese audiences - had a frisson of edgeyness about it. One problem. This straightforward shooter was somehow a film tie-in for a mediocre mech flick of the same name. Presumably some marketing whiz thought a substandard B movie would boost the game's chances. Unfortunately, what it did mean thanks to licensing laws was when Gunhed made its way to the States, it became the utterly generic sounding Blazing Lazers. One opportunity among many NEC missed when it was marketing the TurboGrafx-16 to American gamers a bit older than the kiddywinks Nintendo were, at that point, content to cater for.

I remember my first encounter with Gunhed in the pages of Computer and Video Games. The PC Engine, along with Sega's MegaDrive were the wave of the future. Though it was debateable whether either of the two machines were more powerful than their 16 bit home computer counterparts in the West, the screenshots oozed quality. They just looked better than anything American and European gamers had encountered outside of the arcade. With my humbled clapped out Spectrum at home, the Gunhed screenshots - just like Tatsujin did a few issues later - woke something in me. A desire to have that experience, to be immersed in something way outside my means but also something cutting edge. And what did it were the bosses. Imposing and relatively intricate behemoths, you just knew going up against them in a comparatively puny spacecraft would make for a great digital ruccus. Such were the things to be gleaned from simple screenshots in those halcyon days.

30 years on from these lustful thoughts, how did finally getting my hands on Gunhed compare to the hopes I had for it? All expectations were met. Save one. The ship handled perfectly and zipped around the screen at just the right speed. The enemies came thick and fast, but not in overwhelming waves - provided the ship, the titular Gunhed, is packing the heavy artillery. And the power ups were fine. Anyone who has played a Compile shooter before knows the styles and the system. Different weapons are represented by numbers, which can alternately be powered up by collecting purple orbs. One is a multi-directional shot, two a wave blaster that can be partially directed, three is lightning - which is fun, and four is a crappy shot with spinning barrier balls. This can be complemented by three secondary weapons: a shield, multiples/options, or homing missiles. All of which come in handy. And naturally the more the ship acquires, the more one feels that false sense of invulnerability common to nearly all shooters. When you die you start off with the pea shooter again, which typically means a cascading collapse toward Game Over. Where Gunhed is a little kinder than its contemporaries is getting a bullet down your snout won't always kill you but knock you back a power level. And with plenty of power ups always available one can climb out of the hole relatively quickly. There's also smart bombs to get you out of a tight spot, but they're not great - they don't clear the screen and there is a delay between pressing the 'please blow them up' button and the fairly naff explosion. A shame.

Where Gunhed palls is in the music department. Expecting something pumping and energetic like a Technosoft game, instead the tune is the twee 80s anime-dramatic style, something it shares with Tatsujin and Super R-Type. A shame. The sound effects, however, are very servicable and fit the action perfectly. Which is just as well, because the game is perfect action. This is definitely for winding down the higher brain functions and surrendering to the advanced reflexology it offers. Difficulty-wise it's perfectly balanced. A novice can get about half way on the first go, but then the challenge kicks in. The bosses, those oh so beguiling bosses are ... not that hard actually. Some are very well designed, but their attack patterns aren't difficult to master. If your ship is armed with the wave or the lightning they won't be too much trouble - what will be are the attack patterns of the minions and the sheer number of bullets that are thrown on screen. A fog of war can sometimes descend amid the mayhem, none of which ever lets up and, testament to Compile's technical virtuosity, none of it slows down either.

It was then, for its time, almost the perfect shooter. That probably explains why Compile more or less remade it for the Super Nintendo, known to us as Super Aleste. The music is better, but still not the rockfest that was standard when it came out. But it did recycle all of its sound assets, the same power up system (though with beefier weapons and more to choose from), and enemies with the same attributes. The core gameplay remains, and proved Gunhed's worthy successor. But now in the 21st century? After years knocking around the Virtual Console and recent appearance on the permutations of the PC Engine Mini, how is it remembered and how does it fare? As NEC's machine never made it out of import here, Gunhed was only really known by the few who had grabbed a PC Engine or followed C+VG. Curiously it didn't seem to influence later titles in the vertically scrolling genre apart from Compile's own loosely connected Aleste series of games. And so Gunhed, around these parts, is very niche. But it does not deserve to be. Not original when it came out, apart from the music it nails every aspect of how a vertical shooter should look, feel, and play. It is the distillation of a genre that still had many years to run, and one seldom surpassed.

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Friday, 11 June 2021

In Praise of Deceleration

Accelerationism comes in two flavours. The first, most commonly associated with the term is what we might call inhuman acceleration. This isn't necessarily a value judgement, though it often involves bad things. This is the acceleration of the characteristics of capitalism to their extremes. Privatise the health service? Why not privatise everything. Patents on life forms? Why not patent human bodies. Bring on the clones! A disassembling Labour Party? Then disassemble it some more. It's about ramping up the speeds of capitalism's velocities with certain political ends in mind, which have left and right varieties. For the left accelerationism pushing toward breakdown brings capitalism's antagonisms and class character out into the open, a simplifying of the bewildering machine which will make it easier to smash. For the right it's shoving the social in the direction of nightmare futures of decay, climate collapse, and technological singularity, which are the best conditions for reasserting hierarchy, authoritarianism, and allowing Darwinism to do its worst. A species-wide character building exercise at the price of hundreds of millions, if not billions of deaths and a society barely worth living in. No thanks.

Then there is the Accelerationism of human potentials. This is a politics immanent to capitalism and its expanse of class struggle. It is of fighting encroachments of commodification and the state, of taking capital on in the workplace and the street, of winding through the fused spaces of online/offline, battling in culture wars, taking positions and holding them and always, always pushing the envelope of the possible. Its standpoint is against capital and its exploitation of our bodies and our souls, and for affirming life against the necessity wage labour. It's a politics of what might be versus a deadening existence of expenditure and waste. It struggles, it dreams of shaking off the chains of social obligation and economic necessity, and looks for those points where the primacy of living labour can be asserted against the phantasmic dead labour of capital. When it finds them, it accelerates capacities outside of capital's capture in new ways of living, new ways of communing and belonging, it builds on the sum totals of human knowledge to anticipate societies beyond capitalism. Imagining the future is everywhere and always imagining a life lived differently. This species of accelerationism is not a counsel of despair unlike its inhuman counterparts, but a valorisation of our collective powers and it is this, these particulates of resistance and potential that any accelerationism worthy of the name disseminates. Its velocity is not an arrow pointing forward in time, but horizontal, flat, a wave of ever extending momentum. It never crashes, but like a tsunami it washes in and keeps on coming, sweeping capitalism before it.

But what's this, a third form of accelerationism? And one predating Nick Land's sojourn at Warwick's philosophy department by about a century. That is the accelerationism of impatience, or of the voluntarism that has proven as immanent to revolutionary politics as class struggle is to capitalism. Can we describe it as accelerationism? Sure. Just as macro/molar/Landian accelerationism is concerned with strapping rocket boosters to, for want of a better phrase, the "objective" tendencies and flows of capitalism pointing to its dissolution, the old or the first acceleration was a speeding up of politics by bypassing it completely. The most famous example was the infamous "third period" of Stalinism, of the declaration of social democratic parties as "social fascist" to be struggled against with a vigour equal to, if not surpassing that reserved for the existential menaces of mass fascist movements. The attempt to overcome the influence of larger rivals in interwar labour movements was not by making common cause against a common foe, but in the belief communist forces, sometimes quite meagre as per the still born CPGB here, could overcome disadvantage by stepping up activism and short circuiting the process of building class consciousness. Tragedy and farce, this has been repeated uncounted times by Trotskyist and Maoist groups since, as if one more paper sale, one more demo would turn the wheel and the masses wake up. Interestingly, Lenin himself - their alleged inspiration - set his face against the politics of bypass. In the 21st century it assumes new forms, and is typical of the alienation peculiar to the fusion of class and identity politics. Unlike the political subjectivities of openness, connectivity, and possibility pushed by the accelerationism of human or, if you prefer, molecular potentials, voluntarism rebooted is founded on closed subjectivities. This is identity as a bounded location, one shut off and policed. It generates a recursive universe, a lifeworld filled with certainties as long as the real world is kept at bay. By foreswearing the outside, its acceleration enacts a double movement: a formal declaration of forward everywhere at all times. And, perversely, a complete loss of momentum. It flounders, lacks purchase, refuses to go anywhere. It's stuck. We see this in trade union elections where only the most left wing candidate will do, even if it means letting in the right. We see it in elections, in the raising of political demands, in the constant churn of internecine struggle and backbiting among those giddy with the speed at which they tear around around the closed circuits voluntarism sets up.

Because the production of subjectivities is simultanously a vector of capital accumulation, the open apparatuses of regulation and control, and resistance to capital, the state, and the subjectivities it foists on us, voluntarism and its ironic negation of possibility is a temptation and a tendency molecular accelerationism must be alive to. Seminars and sermons on neoliberal identity, of samizdatting sophisticated theory will only ever go so far. Indeed, taking measures to mark off the voluntarist folly and holding out the hope of innoculation runs the risk of making it more, not less likely. Perhaps what might help is a more modest politics? One cannot escape the layers of history and inequality our fleshy bodies carry about them, but perhaps we can think more about how we invest our energies. What is gained, for example, by identifying with and reinforcing an identification with a politician, a party, or a set of policies and/or theoretical positions? That is going beyond solidarity, which is absolutely crucial to accelerationist politics, emptying the object of the relations that place them in the context of the movement and the struggle and instead pouring in self-identification? Perhaps a modest politics has to be a touch more instrumental, a bit more conditional. It also has to be a politics that is active, collective, and necessarily pragmatic. As old Timpanaro reminds us in his rehabilitation of Engels, the power of movement is constrained. All things at all times are not possible, and his advice for the Marxists of the 1970s was to pay attention to "passivity", of how the material contexts of politics always matter. They cannot be wished away.

In other words, a truly useful accelerationism needs an ethic of deceleration. Multiplying the potentials for new life is also about thinking through how this can be sustained, and in ways that empowers, politicises, builds solidarities and collective institutions, and this often means slowing down, taking stock, consolidating, thinking. Deceleration is understanding the world is never always open, and that our efforts, our attempts to accelerate the coming of the new society are, have to be, strategic.

What deceleration isn't is decelerationism. This is the very opposite of what we want to achieve. Decelerationism is bourgeois politics, and its raison d'etre is to make sure the flows and dynamics of capital do not trespass its speed limit. Capital, commodities, workers, their movements and velocities are fine as long as labour keeps meeting capital and producing surplus value, without excess spilling over into oppositional collective consciousness and leftist politics. They are all containers. Conservative politics suggest we live in the best possible world, and radical attempts to improve it lead to ruin. Liberalism and the reformist (or rather, technocratic) permutations of social democracy, labourism, and official communism say we also live in the best possible world, except for. Decelerationism, like its seeming antipode voluntarism, also cannot be screened out. Molecular accelerationism as it goes about its work has to make its case and continually make its case to the point it becomes spontaneous common sense. We're at the stage now where decelerationism and its slow flows are where we need to be. And getting there isn't just about putting one's foot down and rushing forward. No journey is completed without its necessary decelerations.

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Thursday, 10 June 2021

Defeating Gerard Coyne

The battle for the control of Unite is of strategic importance to the entire labour movement. Even the Labour right, who in ordinary times show scant interest in trade union matters, have blundered in mob-handed to support their man. It's gratifying then to see Gerard Coyne win the least nominations. But what always matters is weight of numbers in the actual ballot. In 2017, under different circumstances, Len McCluskey won with 57,067 votes, with Coyne coming close on 53,544, and the ultra left candidature of Ian Allison mustering 17,143 votes. This was despite Len winning 10 times the branch nominations of his right wing rival. Because the General Secretaryship is contested under First Past the Post, if all four candidates go through to the membership it's reasonable to expect the left vote will be split three ways, allowing Coyne to drive through the middle. As we have seen in so many trade union elections before.

The question before the membership then is what sort of union should Unite be? Seemingly learning his lesson from the absurd campaign of four years ago, Coyne has so far steered clear of personal attacks and hysterical talking points. That's what the friendly rightwingers in the PLP are for. Instead, his website is economism, economism, economism. The six pledges from his manifesto repositions Unite as a service union there to help with reskilling, advice, and more full-timers to support the reps. Nothing about organising, nothing about struggle. Also of interest is a promised "democracy commission" to make the union "less divided" (code for curtailing Unite Community), and an investigation into the union's £98m Birmingham hotel. Save the size and the monies involved, Coyne's platform is no different in kind to election addresses ambitious randoms put together when pitching for a students' union post. It is a step back to the "new realism" of the post-Thatcher period.

And it might work. Trade unionism is political because it challenges management's right to manage, but because it's not immediately, spontaneously big P Politics, the fiction politics and economics are separate is relatively easy to maintain. This is something Coyne understands too well with his promising "an end to messing about in Westminster politics." It's not difficult to think this through. If a workplace branch is fighting to protect existing conditions or is complaining about health and safety, it's not obvious why Unite should be issuing warnings to Keir Starmer about ongoing issues. Whisper it, some don't see virtue in handing the Labour Party any funds at all, a reality that had a mass expression in the past, but these days is more likely to resolve itself into an apolitical stance, cynical about all politicians. An attitude that would suit Coyne down to the ground.

Coyne could be on to something. Pushing the same shtick last time got him within touching distance of the top job, so why not now His success or failure on this occasion is not within his gift: it depends on what his opponents do. Steve Turner has met with the other two left candidates about hammering out a deal so only one goes forward, but no movement at this stage. Given the splash Howard Beckett has made on social media, most of his following are egging him on and basically declaring he should go before the membership regardless. A case, I'm sorry to say, that owes more to stanning and voluntarism than considered analysis and an appreciation of what defeat in Unite means for the left in the labour movement. While Steve Turner is said to be Keir Starmer's second preference, the question Howard's die hard support need to ask themselves is whether our people, from the precarious worker trying to organise their office or depot to branches under attack as bosses foist the costs of the Coronavirus crisis onto them can live with a right winger in the general secretary's chair. To pose the question should elicit the obvious answer.

Obviously there's some distance to go and Steve has rightly said a running commentary on the negotiations would be unhelpful. But there is wriggle room among all three candidates to offer a common programme, and so no reason why politically a compromise cannot be reached. Howard is offering an explicitly politicised trade unionism, Sharon Graham talks tough on workplace organisation and equalities - especially important as trans people are under sustained attack - and Steve has a comprehensive list of priorities for building the union. On all of these issues, Coyne pales. His is a programme for locking the union in a state of quiescent decline and despite what he says, subordinate to the dismal schemes of his parliamentary allies.

As a former T+G shop steward and current member of Unite, politically Howard's pitch strikes me as the most attractive. But practically, what is his chance of winning if there is no unity candidate? Contrary to what some might think, even though the union is growing again it is not being overwhelmed by the newly politicised. The new layers are largely a reaction, a move into the union from workers whose immediate thoughts are clouded by the need for certainty and protection as the economy churns with uncertainty and business collapse. There was no Corbynist flooding of the unions, unfortunately. If Howard emerges as the unity candidate, then fine. The left should back him. But if not, then there is a duty, yes, a duty for leftwingers and socialists to support the best placed candidate to keep the union out of the death grip of the right. And that, at the moment, is the man with the most nominations, including the backing of the largest branches. Steve Turner, in other words.

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Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Abdicating Leadership

There were some successes from the New Labour years worth preserving. One being the legislative spadework done for LGBTQ rights, though a less generous - but accurate - reading would locate this in a vision of "inclusion", of a neoliberal politics premised on equal opportunities and removing unfair and unjust barriers to social mobility. Another, less talked about today, was the consolidation of what we might call bourgeois, or official anti-racism. Going hand in hand with the Blairist project of a superficial modernisation of the British state, the government and other state institutions pushed an official multiculturalism around respecting difference, tolerance, selecting and promoting spokespeople and "community leaders", and rhetorically generating out-groups opposed to the redefined, inclusive Britishness. Islamists and travellers qualified as the undesirables, while everyone else were hard working multi-ethnicity Brits suspicious of extremism and new waves of immigration. Naturally, this wasn't the case. New Labour ministers indulged Islamophobia, and the racism of state institutions, particularly the police, carried on. But all this was cloaked with a blanket of anti-racism and equalities talk, which ultimately increased the social costs of and shrank the tolerance for open, overt racism.

Following attacks on several footy players for showing solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and coming in for stick on social media, in a widely shared open letter Gareth Southgate took on the racists who abuse them. Defending the England team's stance on anti-racism and entirely consistent with the "progressive consensus" multiculturalism of the Blair years, he attacks the racists' sense of Englishness as old fashioned and dying out. With nods to soft patriotic markers of the monarchy, the war, and the "brilliance" of the country, he says his players have every right to stand up for the issues that matter and that all of them have a responsibility to the wider community. The clear implication being the racists are not just on the wrong side of history, they're outside a rebranded inclusive Englishness too.

Not controversial. A gentle nudging, barely even cajoling. It was a piece designed not to make racism a wedge issue but appeal to the better nature of fans who might put their love for the game before bigotry. Obviously not dyed-in-wool racists and dog whistlers like the appalling Tory MP, Lee Anderson. But in this moment on which Labour might capitalise and stand up for anti-racism, even of the most unchallenging kind, where was the Labour leader? Why did it fall to the England manager to defend this legacy of Labourist state building. How could the official inheritor of this tradition only muster a meek tweet of support?

A reminder of the context. The Batley and Spen by-election takes place in three weeks' time, a contest Keir Starmer would do well to win unless he wants a summer of unrest and rightwingers waking up to his lacklustre performance. Amid reports and whispers from the local Kashmiri community that they're minded to sit on their hands thanks to his hamfisted comments about Kashmir last year, and unwillingness to say anything about Palestinians as the Israeli government were slaughtering them by the dozen, even this, a little sign, an intimation of leadership on anti-racism might have helped a little bit. But no. It's almost as if the "grown ups" think they have nowhere to go, and somehow a sympathy vote will see Kim Leadbetter through.

Tone deafness toward an immediate and potentially existential threat to Keir's leadership is, sadly, par the course. The approach to opposition has been weak, from tailing the government and practically patting it on the head at points, to letting others do the oppositional groundwork for him. It was Marcus Rashford who gave Keir permission to start challenging the Tories on school dinners. It was Dominic Cummings's appearance before the select committee that gave Keir the strength to raise the issue of the horrors this government visited on care homes last year. And it was the G7 agreement on the corporation tax floor that encouraged him to start acting like taxing big companies is a good thing, despite Labour's awful rightwing opposition to Rishi Sunak, Rishi Sunak raising the rate. If Gareth Southgate hadn't penned his letter, it's very likely the Labour leader would not have uttered a word.

If this wasn't bad enough, we know the avoidance of wedge issues is purposeful. In his last rare intervention, his Blairness counselled for the avoidance of so-called culture war issues. Peter Mandelson did likewise. Keir did not need this advice from his forebears. By saying nothing it might hoodwink enough socially conservative voters into thinking the plastic patriotism was genuine. Or, alternatively, it clears the decks for Labour's presentation of its economic and social policy agenda. An economism of hoping warmed over Fabianism will do the trick as punters gaze upon the next manifesto in awe, but without actually saying anything now about what Labour would do in office. One might suggest picking priorities and banging on about them until the election might associate the grey blur of Keir Starmer with something substantial, but there's no sign yet this penny has dropped.

It's one thing to accuse leaders of not leading. All party leaders attract these brickbats at some point, but rare is the politician who is so hapless (or mendacious) that their entire strategy appears geared around triangulating defeat and the demobilisation of one's support in every direction. The question isn't whether Keir Starmer can turn it around. It's whether he wants to.

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Monday, 7 June 2021

Cringingly Loyal Hoyle

Rare are the issues that trouble the consciences of Tory MPs, but this was one of them: the government's plan to shrink the Foreign Aid budget by over a quarter. As the occasionally mercurial David Davis put it, the money grubbing for chicken feed, in budgetary terms, is going to kill people. Starving existing projects funded by the UK is going to wreck the life chances of millions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Some might say this government and its predecessors have shown scant concern for people fallen on hard times in this country, and so abandoning crucial infrastructure projects overseas and leaving people to rot is par the course. But it's also self-evidently stupid from the standpoint of making Brexit a success. Other Tory rebels, not noted for their sympathetic ear have less altruistic concerns in mind. Such as the government hobbling the UK's soft power which it needs outside of the European Union, and for those of a more Sinophobic cast of mind it creates an opening for Beijing to build its influence by stepping in.

Having gathered a community of interest around the issue, including an eyebrow raising Theresa May, it looked a dead cert that the government would be defeated as the opposition benches joined with the Tory dissenters. The only difficulty, and what ultimately sank it, was the means by which this thoroughly deserved setback was to be administered. With the government's Advanced Research and Invention Agency bill making its way through the Commons, this innovation agency - a brainchild of the unlamented Dominic Cummings and set up to pour state money into radical technology projects - would be forced to make up the shortfall in the Overseas Budget had the rebel amendment passed. However, there was a risk of the Speaker dismissing it because of the lack of connection to the bill before the house. For example, casting our minds back to the parliamentary battlefront during the Brexit wars, when May was bringing her deal to the Commons for the third time, if a sympathetic backbencher had moved an amendment that would see a doubling of honourable members' salaries, this could, and in all likelihood would have been rejected by John Bercow on these grounds.

Today, our current Speaker Lindsay Hoyle said no. In ruling it out, he said the government should bring overseas aid to the House so MPs could have their definitive say on it. Fat chance. If he was worth a hill of beans he would have forced the government's hand by accepting the amendment as a means of forcing them to respect the modicum of democracy the Westminster system allows. It comes down to how one conceives the speakership. Should the Speaker try and make up for the advantages the government has by championing the backbench member and empower them so the executive can be held to account? Or is the Speaker the custodian of tradition, the preserver of the constitution, and working to keep the bewildering pomp and obscurity going? Bercow, a Tory, was very much a facilitator of accountability. Hoyle, nominally a Labour MP, a Labour MP clings to process, fetishising the form over the meagre democratic content.

This is not a coincidence. Several summers ago, the crowds gathered beneath Elizabeth Tower to hear Big Ben ring out for the final time for four years. As noted then, it was always going to be Labour MPs who got dewey eyed over the stilling of the bongs. And likewise, Labour MPs tend to be more attached to the ludicrous, alienating traditions of the Commons than their counterparts on the Tory benches. Plenty have commented on the private school ethos of the place, and how its obscure rules and stuffy atmos is specifically contrived to remind MPs from the lower orders that this is not theirs. A lot of Labour MPs, however, absolutely love it. Having secured a seat against the odds, what most would find alienating is actually flattering. They're being welcomed into the most exclusive political club of all, they're there by their sweats and talents, and they've earned it. It might bewilder, it might induce a sense of inferiority, especially with posher MPs about acting like they're very much at home, but because of their election, their elevation, they cling to if not enjoy the traditions and stupidities of the place. It affirms and confirms them as a cut above.

This is why we have such a contrast. The Tory Bercow was the most radical speaker of recent times. He was entirely at home running the Commons, having spent decades circulating around the top of the party's tree and, at one point, training other Tory politicians for their political careers to come. For Labour's Hoyle, he is as conservative and as plodding as they come. Hardly surprising considering he comes from a working class dynasty. A red prince before the term was coined, he entered the Commons just as his dad was kicked upstairs to the Lords, and in the days following her death telegraphed his penchant for sycophancy by calling for a national children's hospital named after Princess Diana. When one has a feel for the game, when it's as much a part of you as you are of it, the rules, the niceties, the ways of doing things can be bent to one's will. When one isn't, unless armed with a class analysis - which some MPs in recent times were - the tendency is to venerate, fetishise, and preserve. And in the case of Lindsay Hoyle, as it is destined to be during his spell in the chair, his first instinct to abide by the conventions and niceties of his holiest of holies will see him back the government each and every time.

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Sunday, 6 June 2021

New Left Media June 2021

Another month and another huge haul of left wing media projects for you to check out. Go give them a visit!

1. Class Activist (Twitter) (YouTube Channel)

2. DECODE (Twitter) (Podcast)

3. Fred Hampton Leftists (Twitter) (YouTube Channel)

4. Radicalize Me (Twitter) (Podcast)

5. Sister Sledgehammer (Twitter) (Podcast)

6. The Robert Tressell Society (Website)

7. The Socialist Hour (Twitter) (Podcast)

8. The World As It Could Be (Twitter) (Blog)

9. Tocqueville 21 (Twitter) (Blog)

10. Tricontinental Magazine (Twitter) (Magazine)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs, podcasts, channels, Facebook pages or whatever that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for new media that has started within the last 12 months. The round up appears hereabouts when there are enough new entrants to justify a post!

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Is Labour in Decline?

If this blog is known for anything, surely it's got to be the decline of the Tories thesis (Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain is out this September from all good bookshops, plug, plug). But what if this has been the wrong focus? Arguably, it is Labour that have manifested declinist tendencies more starkly than the Tories. A process, you might say, that was confirmed by the 2019 general election and compounded by Keir Starmer's performance as Labour leader.

With a longer post in the pipeline and some serious reading to be done before bed, friend-of-the-blog Alex had a sit down with Jeremy Gilbert about this very issue. In the discussion Jem talks about the size of Labour's core electorate, whether the Greens pose it a threat, the obsolescence of centrist political strategy, and whether the Labour right are interested in winning an election at all? Staples of this place to be sure, but aways good to hear someone else singing from the same hymn sheet.

Please remember to check out the archive and help build new left media by supporting Politics Theory Other here.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Margaret Hodge's Attack on Unite

Keir Starmer's Labour Party is uninterested in winning elections because his support base and biggest cheerleaders, the Labour right aren't. This is a statement of fact based on the ample evidence of the last six years. Their primary concern, their sole obsession is neither vote catching nor taking seats. This is everywhere and at all times secondary to their main purpose: the crushing and exclusion of the left.

You never have to wait long for confirmation of this thesis. They simply cannot help themselves. They flatter themselves into thinking they're the professionals and the "grown ups", but they'd much rather bash the left than take the fight to the Tories. Take Margaret Hodge, for example. With a fortune of at least £18 million to her name and major share holdings in a tax dodging steel enterprise, she's been the literal bourgeois in the bourgeois workers' party for decades. With her class interests more closely aligning with the party opposite, is it a wonder she's not in any hurry to see the Tories dumped out of office? And so we find her at the heart of the Labour right's latest vendetta.

Firing off a thread last night, Hodge informed the Twitter-travelling public that she had reported Unite to the police. She wrote,
I have recently seen emails suggesting that Unite top officials have been covertly funding political activities. Keeping this secret from its hardworking members ... In these emails, it appears Unite officials, including Howard Beckett, were deliberately orchestrating the deselection of longstanding Labour MPs ... Both @tom_watson and @spellar were allegedly targeted by this plot meaning they were distracted from representing their constituents and had to fend off underhand deselection attempts. Unite should be focusing on the priorities of its members in the wake of COVID-19. Not the political whims of a few trade union barons.
As per her signature style, she couldn't resist the dishonest flourish at the end. While it's true Unite officials were not supporting members under pressure from Covid-19, that has more to do with the diseas, let alone the pandemic not existing at that time. But the rest is the usual bullshit you can expect from this quarter. Tom Watson, readers will recall, was spending more time pursuing his scabby Project Anaconda, subsequently flirting with the LibDems, and attending to his property portfolio than anything resembling opposition to the Tories. And as for John Spellar, when he wasn't ranting incoherently in parliament he held glum Brandhall Labour Club get togethers plotting their take down of Corbyn's leadership. Both men and their following of satraps and temporarily embarrassed right wing Labour MPs had declared war on the membership and would rather the party be a smoking ruin as long as they could be the kings of the ashes.

The real target in all this is Howard Beckett. With Gerard Coyne not looking like he'll get enough nominations to make it onto the ballot (good), their hopes lie in an anyone-but-Beckett winner. Howard Beckett, as readers will know, is pitching for the Len McCluskey continuity vote and has made loud noises about Labour's dismal failures. Most worryingly for Keir Starmer's leadership and a clutch of useless MPs, has pledged to turn off the cash taps unless the party pulls its finger out. He's the candidate to beat with a punchy social media campaign and, as it appears, the momentum. Whether he'll win the general secretary election remains to be seen, but without any political arguments to answer his rise nor any pull in Unite the Labour right can call their own, Hodge has turned to the law in the hope the plod can intervene and derail his candidacy.

There are a couple of things here. We know this is a transparently factional move because she showed no such concern when the misuse of party members' money by right wing party staffers came to light (nor did she have anything to say about their sitting on antisemitism cases for political advantage either). Second, I'm no lawyer but if Unite is utilising money for political purposes, which making cash available for literature aimed at party members is, this is no more unlawful than any other union producing branded material endorsing candidates for selections - or saving sitting MPs from deselection for that matter. Did the unions who idiotically mobilised to save her skin from deselection run it by the members first? The third calculation in play is by making a song and dance about reporting Unite to the police, the right are trying desperately to attach connotations of wrongdoing and possible illegality to his candidature, linking it with the frantic efforts to suggest there was something corrupt about the building of the union's new conference centre.

That Hodge is a party member let alone a sitting MP is nothing short of a disgrace, but it reminds us once again what the Labour Party is. It's not a safe space or a nice place. It's a site of struggle, a stake in and location of class struggle in this country. Someone like Hodge and her fellow rightwingers aren't there to "help people" or win elections to form governments. All they care about is securing their position and protecting their standing, a preoccupation that coincidentally helps keep Labour a party safe for the bourgeois interest, and works to demobilise and break up the collective strength of working people. If this means lying about opponents, and dragging Labour through the mud, they will do it. After all, they're not going to be the ones suffering the consequences of another decade's worth of Tory rule.

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Wednesday, 2 June 2021

A Note on Deleuzian Concepts

Writing comes with risks, especially when musing aloud on thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari. For philosophers of complexity and the hammers of reductionism, it's fitting anyone reading and commenting on their work can form multiplicities of their own in the eyes of others: the sophist, the erudite, the revolutionary, the clueless, the lost. Sometimes if not nearly always simultaneously. Working through their two chief works, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus is to find books that resist review and easy summary. They are difficult, and reading the latter is not recommended before reading the former. From the off you're hit with their concepts in action before they define them in necessariy fuzzy, dynamic ways. This stylistic move which some might find infuriating cuts to the core of their standpoint. In a world in which everything is multiple, where everything is a configuration of elements in which elements acquire their meanings and nature in relationship to the other elements they are assembled with, a concept cannot be a neat definition with hard borders. Conceptual clarity as a virtue might make for logical systems of thought and pose as the apparent enemy of woolly thinking, but their privileging of certain elements analytically removes them from the contexts that give them form and function, thereby changing the nature of what is being described.

Gobbledegook? Not in the slightest. Consider the academic discipline of political science and make a comparison between its assumption of politics and actually-existing politics. The objects of analysis are political parties, their electoral performance, their relationships with one another (privileging coalition and blackmail potentials), how electoral systems work, strategies and manifestos, memberships, etc. In the analytical world they inhabit, all of these things are removed from the real world forces that assemble and constitute them and are entirely repurposed in a conceptual ensemble that not only distorts politics as it appears in political science, but is the prism through which actual politics are written about and understood, even to the point of providing normative models for political activity. That one has to step outside political science so conceived to understand power relationships, the dynamics impingeing in and constituting parties, how politics works outside of formal political systems through social movements and subterranean shifts in mood and opinion is demonstrative of Deleuze and Guattari's point. Oppose what I call militant political science which treats politics and its elements in its multiplicity to the stilted formalism of political science, and it's like comparing day to night. Except the more expansive militant variety is concerned with breaking politics, whereas its academic nemesis is content to commit violence to real dynamics and flows to uphold its intimate relationship with the power it refuses to recognise.

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Tuesday, 1 June 2021

The Limits of Divide and Rule

Little noticed because Scottish independence is a niche issue as far as SW1 is concerned, a ComRes poll for The Telegraph reported how English voters are mostly sanguine about it. Among the 57% who have an opinion, 32% are opposed to independence with 25% supportive. Only a fifth of the sample were "strongly opposed" while a third weren't fussed either way. That said, only 31% thought Scottish independence would be a success with around half expecting it to be a failure. This, like all things, hides significant age splits. 51% of 18-24s were confident Scotland would do well while only 19% of over 55s did. For those looking at any signs of grievance or vindictiveness on the part of ComRes's respondents, 35% were okay with Scotland using the pound after independence while 30% were against, and 34% were against increasing spending in Scotland to keep it within the union while 26% supported moves in this direction.

As noted the other day, one aspect of watching and analysing the Tories is scrutinising their strategies and tactics, their imaginary, and how they sell their thinking about the world to themselves and their wider support. It also means being alive to possible disruptions, cracks, and microfissures in their seemingly monolithic coalition. The possible good news is this is these findings suggest yet another.

What the Tories have to constantly work at and accomplish is providing very good reasons to punters to continue voting Tory. Having the right policies is only part of it. The constituencies naturally disposed toward them, like all actual and potential support for political parties, inhabit a structure of feeling that suffuses the social world. Because we're talking about large aggregates of people, at this level certain sections of the population who share similar material circumstances tend toward adopting common views and feelings about the world. We've talked about the class cohorts and age/property enough here to explain the stark polarisation in polling data and voting behaviour to know this is an inescapable fact of British politics. For the Tories and Boris Johnson, their success in 2019 was recognising how large numbers of older people supported Brexit in disproportionate numbers had something to do with the unease and generalised anxiety one feels as one gets older, an angst that multiplies itself many times over dependent on property holdings, investments, income streams, and so on. Leaving the European Union offered a promise of an incohate national renewal, of reasserting the certainty and authority of the nation to make their worlds a more secure, knowable, relatable, and familiar place to them. The risks of Brexit were dismissed because leaving would once and for all address the gaps, lacks, and anomie at the cores of their common social location.

With Brexit done and the Leave constituency largely (but not entirely) shielded from the economic fallout, the Tories are relentlessly searching for other rhetorical devices and performative position takings to cultivate the angst and fears among their support and keep them wedded to their project. For example, Munira Mirza - responsible for the pitiful we're not racist guv report - is employed by Number 10 to specifically articulate the Tories' war on woke rubbish, to feed the scapegoat hungry maws of the Tory press and therefore give their electoral base a supply line of hate figures and troubling cultural phenomena. The urgings of Liz Truss at government departments to withdraw from a Stonewall-sponsored scheme for LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace is typical of this, with trans women in particular cast in the unwanted role of problematic people who threaten the natural order of things.

What has this got to do with Scottish independence? As far as cohering Tory votes goes, the antipathy that can be stirred up against trans women is small electoral beer compared to the possibilities of appealing directly to English (and British) nationalism, as Brexit attests. Playing divide and rule politics, of opposing England to Scotland proved itself as an effective weapon in the Tory armoury in the 2015 general election. Here Dave successfully created a chain of meaning tying together Scottish nationalism with nuclear disarmament and the SNP holding a Labour-led coalition government hostage in exchange for support. But it's not effective at all times, as Theresa May's attempt to pull the same trick in 2017 fell flat in England, but her anti-independence posturing assisted the modest Scottish Tory revival.

As the UK reels from Covid and the Tories want to talk up the recovery there are, on paper, plenty of possibilities for playing the Scottish card. Confrontations between the SNP government in Edinburgh and Tory Westminster might suit both. Ample opportunities for Johnson to cohere his voting fodder and poison politics more with the ugly rubbish of English nationalism. Hence why the ComRes numbers matter. If only 20% really care about keeping Scotland in the union, the use of this strategy comes with some risk. It might ignite the passions in the same way leaving the EU went from a fringe issue to the dominant question in British politics for four years, but equally it could fall flat and never become more than a second order concern or press hobby horse. But what also makes a confrontation with Scottish nationalism potentially hazardous is how Johnson is prepared to throw money at Scotland to provide incentives for staying in the UK. As polling shows little appetite among English voters for sending extra funds, playing the English populism game might find some force willing to articulate the voice of the "hard-pressed taxpayer". As the Reform successor to the Brexit Party is nowhere, there will be more than a few backbench Tories happy to carry the Little England baton for press glory and advancement in the party. The last thing Johnson wants is a coherent opposition to emerge in his parliamentary party that takes the limelight away from him.

Hence, apart from a few jabs and tussles for the camera, it seems the scope for Tory agitation on Scotland in England is limited, caught between the horns of apathy and commitments to "levelling up". And this is a problem, especially if the Tories start copping the political consequences for their umpteenth delayed response to a new wave of Covid-19. None have the potential to tap into the grievance politics of English nationalism quite like Scottish independence and if efforts at coralling support against Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP fail, what have the Tories got left in the tank to distract and divide at a similar scale?

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Five Most Popular Posts in May

Where have the last five months gone? Why, as sentient beings, are we cursed with a perception of time that accelerates as we get older? It's annoying, but here are five items that occupied more time from more people than any other posts made in May.

1. On Keir Starmer's Stupidity
2. 10 Points on the 6th May Massacre
3. On Entitlement
4. "Shoot the Mad Dogs!"
5. Kuenssberg to the Rescue

Keir Starmer's worst month yet? Yes, it undoubtedly was. Normally accurate forecasts are a moment for smug self-satisfaction, but there is no feeling good about calling his leadership right and seeing the divined outcomes manifest in the most damaging ways possible. If anything, it's appalling. When a sad sack blogger with time on his hands in the evening could see the unnecessary difficulties Labour were likely to get themselves in, then how come the "professionals" and "grown-ups" couldn't see it and, arguably, still can't? Delusion, structural and institutional blindness, wishful thinking, these are responsible for the malaise. And they happen to be the qualities most prized by the new leadership. As for the rest of us disgusted by the spectacle and appalled by the existential peril Dear Keir is dragging the party into, which is the bulk of this place's readership, it's hardly a shocker three posts on this and a supplementary on the Whince of Darkness did the business. And because Laura Kuenssberg always does well on this blog clicks-wise, there she is at the end providing Boris Johnson some BBC-branded cover.

As June is an empty canvas or, as far as I'm concerned, a blank posting interface, who knows what might crop up? Perhaps my piece on immaterial labour, connectivity, and solidarity might get finished. Perhaps, just perhaps, writer's block has well and truly sodded off. It's possible, but moving from Anti-Oedipus onto A Thousand Plateaus could generate some musings in this direction as well. You have been warned. To keep things ticking over, here are a couple of might-have-beens from the May archive for your scopophilic tendencies. Take a look at this peeling back of the Blairist garb. Want more? Go on then. As encore we peer behind the veil of Tory thinking and learn the secret of their success in the so-called red wall seats. At least according to one Tory who thinks he has the golden ticket.

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Monday, 31 May 2021

Nick Kamen - Each Time You Break My Heart

The blog is playing second fiddle to more book. The proofs are back and I'm working through correcting them. Everything has to be tickety-boo with errant words excised and any instances of grocer's apostrophe eliminated. The politics and argumentation therein are a different matter, and so looking forward to the nitpickers and the naysayers in due course. You know what this means as far as the content here goes: music video time.

Because we lost him earlier this month and it's not a bad tune actually, we travel back to 1986 for your listening pleasure.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Can Keir Starmer Turn It Around?

If there is hope, does it lie in the polls? According to Ben Walker in the New Statesman the answer is ... perhaps. There's no hiding Keir Starmer's collapse in poll ratings over the last six months, but just as the nauseating Tory triumphalism carries the possibility of demise, can the green shoots of revival be espied among Labour's numbers?

Sifting through recent polling by Redfield and Wilton, Ben noted 39% of voters did not know what Labour stood for, and 37% don't yet know enough about Keir Starmer to make a judgement. And while we got excited over shadcab shenanigans, barely anyone knows who the Starmerist dramatis personae are - though Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are better recognised. He adds that of those who didn't vote in 2019 some 65% haven't made their mind up. Ben concludes, "... voter uncertainty is high and many are actively unwilling to write him off. All of which means the Labour leader still has an opportunity to persuade them to vote Labour." Therefore Keir's unknowability is ... a bonus?

Let us assume a scenario. Labour more or less carries on in its current vein, and starts unveiling its policy menu which is an updated but overly statist Labourism. Come the general election it trades heavily on being the "change" party and the sole means of booting out the Tories. Could it work? Events dear boy, events would determine the outcome, but one thing the leader's office would bank on is the unknown quantity factor because the public might look upon Keir with fresh eyes, like what they see, and rally behind him. After all, that happened in 2017 - not that this election and its lessons ever existed as far as the Labour leadership are concerned. If this is the strategy, then Ben's observations might carry a frisson of optimism.

I'm less than convinced Keir could pull off such a feat at the moment. And that's because he's demobilising Labour's base. One of the key take homes of 2017, and why the party did unexpectedly well wasn't just an alignment between the party's programme and the inchoate desires and interests of a rising class of workers, but because the base were enthused and were able to act as force multipliers and attractors. It wasn't Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott, or John McDonnell making the party's case that mattered so much, it was the hundreds of thousands of members and supporters agitating and persuading among their friends, families, workmates, and randoms on the train and at bus stops. It was the subterranean process and movement of masses that confounded expectations. It was a weapon the Labour right came to understand, and why they put a great deal of effort into blunting it for factional reasons. And lo, come 2019 it was nowhere near as effective.

But Labour needs this enthusiasm if the party is to stand a chance. The next election, like the last two, won't be fought over a centre ground that is fetishised all the more its imaginary quality is revealed. There is nothing wrong with trying to win over previous Tory voters, but this has to be done in conjunction with turning out those who stayed home in 2019, winning back people that have bled to the Liberal Democrats and Greens and the SNP, and increase the turnout among those layers who are well disposed toward Labour. This is a difficult task made all the more improbable by a leadership who is channelling Peter Mandelson of late 1990s vintage and thinks its strategically important component of left wing voters will snap to attention to get the Tories out, leaving it free to weigh in as the party of social conservatism with 1945 Labour characteristics to win over Brexit supporters. It won't work.

The only way the situation can be turned around is not by proclaiming socialism from the roof tops, but by recognising who Labour's core support is, look at how they were consolidated behind the party during the Corbyn era, and learning how appeals to economic radicalism, social justice, and fairness can keep them aboard while cutting through with the Tory types Starmerism is overly concerned with. Attacking the Tories on raising tax and trying to outflank them from the right will not cut the mustard. In the age of a politics made more conditional, Labour is going to have to start wooing and listening to the people it has spent the last year bashing, because if it doesn't there won't be a last minute ballot box surge, there won't be a Labour government, and the remainder if the decade is for the Tories to do with as they wish.

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Friday, 28 May 2021

Social Conservatism and Tory Overreach

Every period of dominance carries the seeds of its downfall, and the present overweening pre-eminence of the Tories is no different. But where are these immanent weaknesses and fault lines, the points of potential collapse that will eventually do for Boris Johnson what the ballot box hitherto has failed to manage? It's pleasing to note that just as their long-term decline hasn't gone away, despite recent successes and enviable polling leads, another persistent characteristic of their tradition is living and breathing. This is the tendency, the urge to overreach.

Consider each of the last four Tory Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher had her Poll Tax, an attack so manifestly unpopular and obviously counterproductive for the Tories that they kicked their most iconic leader since Churchill to the kerb. John Major managed just two years in the chair before his government overreached. Reeling from the farce of Black Wednesday, to follow it up with their vindictive pit closures programme and charging VAT on fuel bills to pensioners added cruel and callous to the popular perception of incompetence. Dave, does anything need to be added? Gambling and losing the UK's EU membership for the sake of warding off the UKIP threat in a handful of seats was probably the most reckless wager any Tory leader has made - at least until Johnson's handling of the pandemic came along and killed 128,000 people. Theresa May is on the hook too. Her mistake wasn't so much calling a general election in early 2017. With a commanding poll lead, thumping personal ratings, and a divided opposition what Tory leader wouldn't exploit the opportunity? The overreach here manifested itself in the terrible campaign the Tories ran. Nor is this just a disease of the leaders. For the longest time the Tories believed hard euroscepticism was the route to electoral success even though it had zero purchase - until a series of circumstances and poor decisions created the circumstances when it did.

Helpfully for Boris Johnson his friends in broadcast and print have shielded him from the consequences of being Boris Johnson. So far. But there are signs. Writing in The Graun, Andy Beckett reports on the ripples of concern bobbing about the Tory party in Southern England. While the new voters in the deinidustrialised north were toasted for giving Labour a thumping, their eyes and ears were shut to the crumbling blue wall. In the shires and country lanes, the reds, yellows, and greens are making an advance. The corest of core areas are not the Arcadian redoubts they're supposed to be. So while the Tories talk about levelling up and get excited about infrastructure projects in the North East, the base they've loyally pampered might start shopping around. Or, worse, they might think they can go without and start attacking them if they get in the way.

If this wasn't tempting enough, there are other ways a death instinct can be satisfied. Also writing in The Graun, Tim Bale has a butchers at the latest book to issue from the many "research groups" fighting for space on the Tory benches. The Common Sense Group have pushed out a collection of essays "for a post-Liberal age". There's stuff in here on policing, on education and apprenticeships, stuff on families, and loads of other Tory touchstones. Note, nothing on housing, the environment and climate change, health and the pandemic, and life after Coronavirus. The one essay that particularly delights is the five page screed from Alexander Stafford, a typical well-heeled suit who now finds himself in an erstwhile proletarian stronghold - this time Rother Valley. To read the title of his essay, 'Social Conservatism – Turning the Red Wall Blue for Years to Come', is to read the essay. Not pretending to any originality, he argues Labour is now the party of the luvvies, the middle class, and "the woke" and former stalwart seats gave them the heave ho because of an abandonment of "traditional values". Also, the Tories are the party of "hard work" and must stand up for their new electorate's antipathy to "ever-larger handouts". With a mix of fiscal prudence and one nationism, "by opposing unpatriotic political correctness, conserving British institutions, and reversing the diminution of our country’s stature and history, we can end the culture war, and in doing so defend British values and our way of life" (p.111).

We've recently seen one Tory overstate Conservative activism as the key to victory, but that's harmless enough for Tory prospects. A spot of leafleting and occasional door knocking never did any party any harm. But to put success down to values is, as per the Tory way, to fundamentally recognise and misrecognise something simultaneously. Given the social positioning and lifeworlds of their old and new cores, peddling socially conservative culture war bobbins might work for some, particularly those relatively insulated from the everyday grind. Remember, the more secure the Tory voter is the less secure they feel. But for others, there is a transactional component to their switch from Labour to the Tories. Brexit is the obvious one, but the Johnson trumpeting of moving departments out of London, and talk about the levelling up of regions, even if it assumes clientelist forms, is a recognition family values bullshit and racist scapegoating aren't going to cut it. Andy Street's success in Birmingham and the galloping victory of Ben Houchen on Teesside was thanks to a perceived record of delivery, and is the same explanation for why Labour expanded its reach in the North West and Wales.

In his eagerness to force the pace of moulding Britain (England) around his mouldering social conservatism, Stafford falls prey to hubris. He might read his Rother Valley victory as an embrace of conservative values, but more than anything it was a rejection of a Labour Party lousy with entitlement and contempt. If he and his ilk don't deliver and are seen just pratting about lecturing poor people on how they spend their money, he'll be lucky to last two terms. And Stafford is by no means an isolated MP. If this becomes the Tory common sense and discussion of investment just remains words, then their misrecognition will really bite. Nemesis will happily jog in once Hubris has had its wicked way.

Unfortunately, ascribing social conservatism supernatural powers is more a feature of Labour than the Tories at present. Likewise, the wobbles in safe Tory seats are just that - minor tremours. But new faultlines can rapidly proliferate. If the Conservative Party neglects enough of the traditional core or, worse, attacks them, if they talk a good economic regeneration but nothing happens, and if Labour gets its act together and stops blaming Jeremy Corbyn for its ills then these small signs can become portents of disaster. And by the time they're flashing the warning lights and sounding the alarm, that will be the moment it's too late for the Tories to do anything about it.

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Wednesday, 26 May 2021

The Doings of Cummings

Complacency. This has characterised the government's response to the pandemic all along (and, indeed, still does). Not my take this time, but the opinion of Dominic Cummings, the former chief advisor turned unlikely ally in the efforts to make the Tories accountable for the 128,000 deaths that have happened on their watch.

In his seven-hour testimony before the select committee, we learned the government were unconcerned about the reports coming out of China and the precautionary lockdown Taiwan instituted on New Year's Eve, an opinion shared with international organisations like the WHO too. But, of course, matters got especially worse in the UK versus comparator countries and these matters, and the tragic loss of life they entailed, are outcomes of reluctant, half-arsed, and delayed decision making. Boris Johnson himself treated the outbreak as an inconvenience rather than a mounting national emergency demanding immediate action. Cummings said that Johnson saw Covid as a scare story no more serious than Swine Flu. And to prove it, Johnson was happy to get Chris Whitty to inject him with the virus live on TV. Then there was the institutional inertia of government. Urgency was absent as "lots of key people were literally skiing". Cummings acknowledged his own failures too, saying he did not push hard enough on the seriousness of the situation and had recommended that Johnson not bother with the COBRA meetings - adding his flippant attitude would not have assisted proceedings anyway.

When government did get round to its response to Covid, Cummings argued the herd immmunity strategy without a vaccine was very much on the table. Indeed, the only option. He said the Dept of Health had drawn up two scenarios, and what needed managing was when the surge in infections would fall - either immediately, or later in the year. Readers without medium-term memory impediments will recall the Tories' dithering ensured the worst possible worlds: a peak in both parts of the year. The original thinking wanted to let the infection work through the population so enough would become infected, develop antibodies, and therefore stop Covid from transmitting to others. Or to put it alternatively, a plan for a massive death rate and skyrocketing serious illness. Again, some might remember Cummings himself got into hot water for allegedly expressing this opinion behind the scenes. Cummings also added that the then prevailing view in government was that instituting a lockdown was considered more dangerous than letting Coronavirus rip, with the government flying kites and tentatively testing the water instead of taking an early decision. However, this indecision was backed by professional opinion: lockdowns would only delay the problem, not avoid it. Exculpatory evidence? Hardly when you consider how the experience in the East was already in the can and had effectively managed infections.

Matters certainly weren't helped by distractions. The first, on 12th March according to Cummings, was a plan by Trump to bomb targets in Syria. The other was "the prime minister's girlfriend was going completely crackers about something trivial". In this case, press coverage of the Downing Street dog. And once the government started taking things seriously, instead of learning from East Asia everything was done on the hoof. For example, shielding was an afterthought and the (weak) policy was cobbled together over "two all-nighters". Matt Hancock also found himself on the sharp end, with Cummings saying the Dept of Health was turning down ventilators while PPE procurement was not immediately seen as a priority. Warming to his theme he called Hancock out as a liar for claiming everyone got the treatment they needed during the first peak, and tried blaming PPE shortages on NHS England and Rishi Sunak. For this he shoud have been sacked about 15-20 times.

There were bits and pieces for lovers of tittle-tattle. Asked about his relationship to the media, Cummings said he'd stopped talking to journalists in January 2020, except for the ever-loyal Laura Kuenssberg, to whom he gave "guidance" on "specific stories". Less amusing but altogether more damning was the admission testing was pared down between March and May because the government believed the effort was pointless if 70% of the population were going to contract the disease. And while this was deliberately and consciously wound down, Johnson promised a target of 100,000 tests a day by the end of April. As was widely suspected at the time, it turns out Hancock tried hoarding testing kits so the arbitrary target could be met on time. It was also Hancock who promised people moving out of hospital and into care homes would be tested, but weren't. And we all know what horrifying scenes visited the most vulnerable in these places.

As the crisis wore on, Boris Johnson continued to be a major block on things. He would avoid decisive action because of the knock the economy would take. Presumably the same thinking is behind his continued refusal to manage the borders properly, and Cummings speaks of his frustration of himself, Sunak, and the cabinet secretary coming to a conclusion but Johnson going off on and changing his mind. What mattered to him was media management and what the editorial offices were saying. For example, Cummings claimed he and others were urging the PM not to encourage people to return to work in late summer and early autumn, but his ears were bent by those who argued a degree of herd immunity had been achieved. A seed cast onto fertile ground, given Johnson's preoccupation with matters economic. And speaking of September, he claimed both he, Hancock, and others were arguing for a further lockdown to head off rising transmission - but Johnson completely failed to heed their advice. Indeed, Johnson continued to be "cross" with Cummings because even by this stage he felt the first lockdown was a mistake he'd been bounced into. Unsurprisingly, asked if he though Johnson was "a fit and proper person to get us through this pandemic", his answer was simply no.

Who can disagree? The failings have been glaringly obvious, the lockdowns haphazard and inconsistent and, if we are to accept Cummings's testimony as good coin, the fact the interests of key Tory constituents were protected despite the chaos and dysfunction was just a fortuitous happenstance. As ever, just as interesting as the utterances were the silences. He registered his opposition to Help Out to Eat Out, the one scheme that helped keep Covid transmitting throughout August, but Dishy Rishi didn't cop for any criticisms. Contrary to reports from around the cabinet table, he didn't oppose or drag his feet over locking down (news, it has to be said, to the chancellor himself). Another curious omission was a certain Michael Gove, these days de facto Prime Minister as Johnson busies himself writing Shakespeare's biography. As theoretically the most powerful man in government after Johnson, his role in proceedings is almost entirely opaque. Cummings might be immune to the normal pressures Tory solidarity exerts, but he knows who his allies are and who might listen to him in the future.

As Cummings notes, the disaster of the UK response to Covid was a systemic failure. Relationships within government were messy, the state labyrinthine, planning was non-existent and everything was done on the hoof. Matters weren't helped by disastrous decision making and a leader likened to a shopping trolley because of his tendency to veer out of control. The one success as far as he was concerned was the vaccine programme, precisely thanks to a clear chain of accountability and decision-making.

What strikes me about Cummings's appearance was how far removed he was from the crafted media image. Instead, we saw a frustrated, exasperated technocrat despairing at the way politics gets in the way of things. If has a counterpart in the Labour Party, his nearest kin is Tony Blair's most obsequious stan, Andrew Adonis. But there are special circumstances here. The Tories have expertly handled the politics of the Covid crisis, not least because their friends in print and broadcast media were there to lean on, but on actual competence this government is terrible on every measure. If there is "talent" in the Tory party, it's very well hidden in the junior ministerial and bag carrier grades. But ultimately, will today's revelations make any difference to Tory fortunes? And the answer is ... no. Covid might yet bite the government if the UK is forced into yet another lockdown because of their negligence, but raking over the record now, while important, is not going to produce a vengeful public who've just woken up to how the Tories have failed them. That moment was a year ago when the crisis was at its height, when alternative leaders are supposed to rise to the occasion. But that didn't happen. There was another failing politician Cummings didn't name, someone who simply sat in the Commons and nodded everything through and didn't ask the tough questions for the sake of being "constructive". When pressure and different policy proposals could have sharpened up the government's act, as per the dying days of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership, Keir Starmer was nowhere. Indeed, so inconsequential to the last year he has been that I doubt the thought ever crossed Cummings's mind to mention him.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Never Gonna Give You Up

Obsessions are unhealthy things. The crushing of a horizon to a single point of focus, one infitesimally small to outsiders looking in but for one person's internal life the be all and end all. It exerts an irresistable gravitational pull that locks them into a permanent orbit. Occasionally, it might suck them in to the point of no return. Whatever, once the fixation is established everything else is overdetermined. There is no escape, no line of flight away. Every point of contact with the outside world weighs heavy with their chosen burden.

Who in the political firmament do we see caught in the well of obsession? Readers might have caught Lisa Nandy sounding off about Jeremy Corbyn on LBC. You'd think the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine might have other pressing concerns at the moment, but no. The former Labour leader should apologise to the Jewish community for Labour's persistent difficulties with antisemitism. Ignoring his past self-flagellations on this very issue, it's interesting how Nandy has nothing to say about the times Labour Party employees sat on anti-semitism complaints to exacerbate the crisis. And neither has anyone else on the Labour right who were very concerned about this issue either. Very strange.

Then we have Neil Coyle. Evidently Keir Starmer is doing such an effective job at holding the Tories to account that Neil thinks he can spend his time pursuing Jeremy Corbyn over his declaration of interests, claiming support for legal costs fron Unite were not properly filed. Whether every dot and comma has been correctly placed remains to be seen, but for Coyle it's proving easier for him to take on his own side than take the Tories to task. I mean, researching what the government do, asking tough questions in the chamber, making the case for an alternative government. It's all so much hard work.

Perhaps the most ridiculous were comments from Sharon Hodgson, who decided to say Jeremy Corbyn must come clean about whether he's had his Covid jabs or not. While people should get vaccinated, it's up to them whether they disclose it or not. If Hodgson is really, really concerned about who has and hasn't had their shots, as a leading opposition MP wouldn't her amateur health sleuthing be better directed at reluctant MPs on the other side of the Commons? After all, that's who the anti-vaxxers, face mask conspiracists, and Covid denialists are politically closest to.

Three cases of residual anti-Corbynism. Three cases where Labour MPs chose to keep the right's vendetta against Corbyn going. Three cases of an obsession the so-called grown ups in the room cannot shake. Nor will they ever. Their kind will be summoning the phantasm of Corbyn for decades after he's gone, not because of who he was but for what - to them - he represented. Forget their self-interested talk about winning elections and having a programme the electorate will respond to. They themselves spent the best part of the last six years scotching that particular myth. To them Corbyn was a joke until the very moment the floodgates opened and the mass member surge almost fatally threatened the only power they truly care about: their control of the Labour Party.

Exorcising Corbyn and using every opportunity to damn him to their seven hells is more than an expression of their collective trauma, it's an outburst of fear. They dread anything like 2015 happening again, and want to prevent it, even of the party has to be put to the sword. But because they don't understand politics, that even some Tories have a better grasp about what's going on, all they can do is continually aim their barbs against the former Labour leader and push their campaign of petty harassment.

Does this look like a party serious about government to you?

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