Sunday 31 January 2021

Book Update

It's rare for the blog to go a couple of days without passing comment. And so I feel duty bound to explain myself.

As readers may or may not know I've been writing a book about your friends and mine, the Conservative Party. This time last year it existed as a series of fragmentary notes, a plan, and a badly written and unstructured couple of chapters reviewing literature on the Tories and setting out the thesis. I.e. The Tories are in long-term decline and the recent uptick in the party's electoral fortunes, counterintuitively, are symptomatic of this process.

A year on the book has been and visited the editors and the second edit is now almost complete. What remains to be done are the following,

1. Redoing the conclusion (the first draft was a series of bullet points and notes).

2. Put together a post script on the Tory handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.

3. Go back and renovate the introduction for the third time. Got to make sure everything lines up properly.

4. Return to bits and pieces of the book. Have been umming and ahhing about a couple of tables. I know political scientists like them but this is a work of militant political science!

Deadline is Wednesday evening and still have busy day job to deal with, but it is entirely doable and the date will be met. It does mean some blogging might be sacrificed, as it has for the last fortnight. So I guess this is a roundabout way of asking for further forebearance as the beastie undergoes a few more days of assembly.

As for writing the book itself, it's been an interesting process. I plan doing a writing on writing piece later in the year. Creativity is bound up with ideologies and illusios of talent and singular specialism, and socialist writers should do their best to prick its bubble and demystify the lot.

And at the risk of starting a cheeky/tedious trend of my always banging on about the book, provided we're not smited down nor the EU demands the diversion of pulp supplies to the continent publication is this September in time for party conference season. Its working name is Falling Down, but this might change. A word of warning, having got this almost out the way I might have acquired a taste for book writing ...

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Thursday 28 January 2021

Why Isn't Keir Starmer 20 Points Ahead?

I'm about to extend Keir Starmer a courtesy the liberals, the Blairist, and the right wingers never afforded Jeremy Corbyn. What are the forces in play sustaining the logjam in the polls? In the last four days DeltaPoll put the Tories on 41% and Labour on 39%. Redfield split the difference less favourably, with the Tories enjoying 42% versus Labour's 37%. And then, on Thursday, a glint of light. YouGov reported Labour on 41% and the Tories down to 37%. The performance of the two parties have bobbed up and down like this since mid-Autumn, despite the odd Tory calamity and the 100,000 Covid dead. Labour has not landed a knock out blow, and the Tories have kept their jealously guarded authority together.

How then, how can it be we're still in this position. What are the drivers keeping the bulk of Tory voters onside? First, we have to consider the pandemic itself. Recalling polling last March, the Tories were powering ahead on 56%(!) just as the lockdown came in to force. Labour languished on just 26%. Some was undoubtedly down to the Corbyn factor. I.e. He was a lameduck leader as the contest for his successor played out, but more of it was thanks to the special political circumstances of the moment. Covid-19 was new and largely unknown, and to ward it off many millions did not venture out of their homes for weeks. In this novel emergency, millions turned to the only institution capable of organising the public health strategies and providing the material for dealing with it. The state, in other words. Or more precisely, the government. In a national emergency, many people rallied round and backed the Tories as the expression of the collective effort against the disease. Keir Starmer for his part was very mindful of this and, to his mind, justified his cautious approach at the beginning of this and ever since.

Ridiculous poll leads can't last forever, and as the novelty of the crisis faded into the new normal those Tory numbers came sliding down to where they are now. But not for everyone. There are voters, many of whom might have "lent" their ballots to get Brexit done, who are sticking with the Tories precisely because they are the government during this moment of existential angst. These are also the people the strategic geniuses in the leader's office want to win over by alienating leftwing voters in safe Labour seats in the big cities.

Then there is the inescapable fact of politics these last six years: how economic polarisation has led to political polarisation. On the one hand, the young disproportionately suffer low pay, precarious jobs, few opportunities for career advancement, a lifetime of renting, poor social security entitlements, and growing anger at a government putting them at the sharp end of the Covid crisis. Against them are the majority of the old and retired. They enjoy secure pensions, are more likely to own property (and a significant number own more than one), and know they benefit from housing supply shortages and the private rental market. Thanks to their social location, life is riddled with ontological anxieties. From their point of view, the Tories have looked after them since the triple lock on pensions was introduced, they've delivered Brexit at their behest, they keep the young in their (disadvantaged) place and aren't averse to giving their favourite scapegoats a good hiding, and are prioritising them for Covid vaccinations. Because the government has ensured these demographics are sheltered from the economic consequences of the pandemic and Brexit, the more likely they'll swallow the Tory line that people are primarily to blame for the catastrophe than Boris Johnson. Because Tory framing has become their framing, the clear age profile to Covid fatalities isn't a failure of government. It's a matter of rotten luck.

These are the two key reasons - loyalty in a crisis, and the fact the Tories put the interests of their core constituents before public health goes some way to explain why we are where we are. But this is where we hit an interesting anomaly. Love or loathe Jeremy Corbyn, everyone can agree he was a polarising figure. The horrendous demonology purposely and cynically concocted by right wing Labour, the Tories and their press helpers wound up and terrified their supporters, swing voters, and soft Labour voters of leave and remain persuasions. The consequences were a firming up of the Tory voter coalition and exacerbating divisions among their opponents. A casebook example of divide and rule in a liberal democracy.

Yet, with Keir Starmer matters are very different. He faces a government much worse than the fag end of Dave and Osborne, the Theresa May interlude, and even the pre-Covid Boris Johnson period. He has, so far, managed to play the media game in a conventional way and they've proven quite supportive. He doesn't face the daily character assassinations hurled at his predecessor. And, according to polling done on his leadership - further confirmed by phone banking Labour across the seats lost in 2019 - is that Keir is liked, or at the very least is tolerated more than most politicians. His esteem is certainly higher than Johnson's, for one. Jeremy Corbyn was significantly weighed down by an accumulation of disadvantages. Keir Starmer, on the other hand, travels light. The worst he's had to deal with yet are a few grumbles.

Still, the Tory position remains, and Labour's poll leads are episodic and fleeting. Granting these benign circumstances for an opposition, the conclusion is inescapable. While a 20 point lead is impossible, the lack of leadership shown by Keir Starmer, his refusal to contest the rules of the game and, at every step, either tailing the government when he wants to look statesmanlike, or tailing SAGE or Marcus Rashford when he wants to be critical, is helping perpetuate the polling deadlock. To the public who don't follow politics, he's merely an empty suit, someone avoiding self-definition in the hope that hopes can be projected onto his vacant profile. Which is exactly where the Tories want him. If he won't define himself, Johnson will do it for him.

Here is your anomaly. Wider polarisation is keeping the Tory coalition together. And it's aided and abetted by a milquetoast opposition unwilling or unable to say boo to a goose.

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Tuesday 26 January 2021

ContraPoints on JK Rowling

She's back with a 90 minute (90 minute!) video essay on JK Rowling. Enjoy!

Monday 25 January 2021

Timidity as Clever-Clever Politics

There's a hiss in the background. It's a wee one, but when amplified a discerning listener might catch a few snatched whispers. Hurried, furtive conversations. Maybe even a grumble and a growl. It's all very behind the scenes, and no one wants to be identified as a troublemaker, but if something isn't done a quiet complaint unaddressed can only grow louder, more assertive, more cacophonous. The quiet chat doing the rounds among centrist Labour and the soft left concerns the beloved leader, and it condenses into one troubling question. When is Keir Starmer going to start showing some leadership? This is a theme well trod around the left, not least in these parts, but they're intruding into the mainstream. Over in Graun land, Gaby Hinsliff broke the taboo and scribbled down some gentle criticisms. And from the weekend, professional working class whisperer John Harris ventured into print on a similar theme.

John's proposition is a simple one. Why is Labour so quiet when the problems of our age are loudly demanding solutions? He spends his article kicking the ball around the houses, noting the stark inequalities the pandemic has exposed, the miserable state of, well, the state after decades of hollowing out and privatisations. He notes the most significant defeats inflicted on the government are thanks to "wider culture" (i.e. the savvy hand played by Marcus Rashford). Meanwhile Labour's campaign, if it can be called that, of stopping the government cutting Universal Credit is suggestive of tailing the public mood against bashing the poor than making political weather in its own right. As John rightly argues, calling the Tories incompetent won't fly once tens of millions are vaccinated in the next four or five months, and "if a moment of crisis, institutional failure and rising despair is not a time to think big, when will be?" Quite.

As we know from the Starmerist operation so far, Keir is only decisive when he thinks the situation is fully under control: in the Labour Party. It just doesn't exist outside. Criticisms of Boris Johnson bang on about incompetence, with the minor issue of a hundred thousand Covid dead and corrupt tenders for Coronavirus government contracts skipping over the surface of a pond with barely a ripple. There is no sharpness, no bite to his criticisms. Just a plod through Johnson's distortion/ignorance of the facts that hardly inspires interest when PMQ snippets are shown on the evening news. Yes, polls have recovered a bit and people might like him more than Jeremy Corbyn, but then again the press and politics programming aren't inviting their audiences to vent themselves at concocted and confected outrages every other day.

Okay, so Keir is insipid. This we know. And by "we", this means the soft left, and the bulk of the centre and the right of the party too. But why? His timidity has a recent political pedigree in the custom and practice of the Labour establishment. Long-time party watchers know Ed Miliband's leadership was sclerotic and ultra-cautious, determined not to commit itself to policy positions in the first two years of his election. Not getting weighed down by position-takings would, theoretically, allow Labour to offer nimble opposition and allow Ed to establish himself in the popular imagination as a smiter of Tory failure. Unfortunately, this evacuation of policy was accompanied by an estrangement from politics. The tedious "too far and too fast" soundbite used to criticise Tory cuts wasn't oppositional because it didn't contest the fundamentals. And by accepting their parameters of the debate, that cuts were "necessary", Dave could carry on presenting the Tories as the only party capable of making tough choices. It didn't matter that Ed Miliband frequently posted handsome poll leade, including double-digit advantages, because he didn't establish himself in political terms from the off the Tories did it for him.

Ed's approach didn't fall from the sky. It was the template that got The Master himself into office. Tony Blair wasn't sparing of John Major at the dispatch box, but Labour in 1994 was in a much better position than Labour in 2021. Blair not only inherited a huge lead over the Tories from John Smith, but the Tories themselves had to all intents and purposes disintegrated. Government authority was destroyed by the triple shocker of Black Wednesday, the 1992 pits closure programme, and VAT on fuel, and a poisonous cocktail of incompetence, cruelty and sleaze kept reminding the public how decrepit and dysfunctional they had become. Labour, if it wished, could have cruised into office. Yet what is not well remembered was how petrified Blair was of the party's shadow. Having drawn the conclusion Labour kept losing because any programme resembling, well, Labourism was well to the left of the electorate, the whole lot got ditched. Stick to Tory spending plans, sound tough on crime and determined on education and, for goodness sake, don't say socialism. Here was the Blairist passport to office. His was less a programme and more a capitulation, a surrender so abject not only did Labour accept the Thatcherite settlement, but actively deepened it. But dumping Labourist politics and stealing Tory clothes won elections, so it was worth it, right?

We've seen Starmerism, as much as it does have some substance, gravitate back to consensus positions on the security services and, most ruinously, on Coronavirus itself. Its miserable failure to even back the teaching unions over a national lockdown, despite having majority public support is cowardice, but entirely what one would expect if the "SLT" were following the politics dot-to-dot handed down from Ed Miliband and Tony Blair.

Tell has been heard that Keir himself is starting to get concerned about these grumbles and wants to be seen standing for something, as if he's not the master of his own destiny. But this is dangerous territory for him. It requires appearing on one side of an issue, which makes appearing all things to all people - Keir's default - impossible. There are plenty of wedge issues Labour has to come down on if it wants to keep its core support, but so far there is little to no inkling Keir or his lieutenants have a clue about the character of Labour's base nor the sort of alliance it must build to win elections. With whispers growing to the level of background noise and establishment liberals fretting openly, this is pressure Keir cannot ignore. Sooner rather than later he's going to have start doing the politics, or the politics are going to do him.

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Sunday 24 January 2021

Alien Interlude

Now for something a little off the beaten track.

Science geeks, astronomy types, and UFO enthusiasts allowed a frisson of excitement to shudder through the collective consiousness as news leaked about a possible artificial signal coming our way from the direction of Proxima Centauri. The closest star to our solar system, for those who don't follow such things. The podcast above talks about the science of the signal (which, in all truth, will probably turn out to be your dad's microwave) and other matters of interest. If you're wondering how humans might react to confirmation of an alien civilisation, then this item from the archives might assuage your curiosity.

Friday 22 January 2021

A Note on Ruthlessness

Critique Keir Starmer. Mock his pleading patriotism. Laugh at him and call him Keith (Kieth), but comrades should pay attention and learn from his leadership in one crucial aspect: his handling of Labour's internal politics. As NEC member Mish Rahman reported earlier, Keir means to and, well, effectively has stitched up parliamentary selections. The executive voted through a paper that will grant David Evans, the general secretary (and unelected party employee) the right to refuse a candidate selected by a constituency party if he determines they're unsuitable because they don't meet the right standards. A vote for any of these decisions to be referred to the NEC also fell.

You can imagine the press furore and the whingeing of the parliamentary party if Jeremy Corbyn had bounced the NEC into conferring this power on Jennie Formby. In fact, that doesn't sound too much of a bad idea ... But we don't have to imagine. In March 2018 the ridiculous Owen Smith got the heave ho from the front bench for peddling his own line and generally being disagreeable. The response? Outrage and the cry of "this is a terrible Stalinist purge!". Your reminder, as if it needs repeating, that there is no such thing as a point of principle where the Labour right are concerned. Everything is a factional football for them. Everything.

The lesson? Well, Keir might be as far from Trotskyism as you can get (though not as far as some ex-Trot fellow travellers of the Trilateral Commission), but he certainly remembered something from the branch lead offs on permanent revolution. Not a doctrine for constantly fermenting revolution and storming heaven, as pretended by Trotsky's Stalinist nemesis, it is the simple insight that if workers seize power they'd better organise to keep it by moving to expropriate the property of the capitalist class, disarm the soldiery of the bourgeois state, clear out the old bureaucrats, etc. In other words, making the revolution permanent. This is exactly what Corbyn didn't do and, arguably, refused to do. There were opportunities to break the hold of the parliamentary party on Labour and enshrine the sovereignty of the membership, most crucially in 2018 when the leadership manoeuvred at conference to defeat a mandatory reselection motion and go for the compromise mess of a reformed trigger ballot. There was the opportunity to decisively tilt the balance of forces in the party, but it was not taken up. And here we are.

Keir is not making the same mistake. He's got his majority on the NEC. The press aren't causing him grief. The left are large, but contained. And nothing (yet) has come of his suspension of Corbyn from the PLP. And what's the cost of anti-democratic shenanigans. A few thousand resignations by leftists and some moaning on Twitter? Big deal. So why not go for a power grab at a moment of oppositional weakness and where, seemingly, the stars are aligning. From Keir's point of view of recasting Labour in his bland, managerial image, he'd be stupid not to. His writ rules the roost, and for all his talk of "unity" the apparatus is in place to screen out leftwingers selected to run in any upcoming by-elections and, of course, the general election itself. Perhaps not a few sitting MPs might also find themselves out on their ear for lacking the required "probity".

Despair? Absolutely not. This can be turned over and reversed by party conference. The "SLT" can ignore the party on matters of policy, as it always has done, but not when it comes to conference rulings on how the party should organise itself. Momentum has launched its policy primary with a view to pushing for positions at 2021 conference. Organising against the Evans veto alongside measures aimed at reversing the deadening creep of Starmerist authoritarianism seems like an entirely appropriate thing Momentum and the rest of the left should be pushing for. If the lesson from Keir is he's serious about power, at least where machinations in the Labour Party are concerned, then the obvious, the only worthwhile response from the left is we should be too and struggle with as much determination. And, yes, ruthlessness.

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Thursday 21 January 2021

Starmerism and Fabianism

I know any other leader would be 20 points head of the Tories by now, but what do traditional elements of the centre left establishment think of Keir Starmer's performance? As if answering this rarely-asked question, the Fabian Society's Andrew Harrop has been kind to offer this hottake. Writing following the first Fabian conference in years where the centre and the right are back in charge of the party, it seems an aposite time for them to reflect on the "achievements" thus far and where Keir Starmer looks like he's going.

First, we hear Andrew's praise for the shadow cabinet as it demonstrated a "striking unity of purpose and tone", and this came through in contributions that were "values-driven but with a practical bent". This showed a middle way (not a third way) between "the rudderless managerialism of new Labour, when at its most centrist, and the utopian excesses of the party’s recent pipedreams." Anyone playing centrist bingo as they read the piece can cross off the unironic deployment of "team of grown-ups", and thankfully we learn they're determined about winning power. Because, in case you didn't know, Labour has to win elections. Apparently, policy and pronouncements are judged by rebuilding relationships with voters (funny way of showing it), and now Labour understands the coalition of voters it has to assemble. "There was much talk of reconnecting with lost working-class seats, but not at the expense of the party’s values or urban voters", he breathlessly writes. It's going to take more than speeches with Union Jack bunting and the assumption the left have nowhere to go, I'm afraid. Summing up, Andrew says "with a frontbench team focused on unity, competence, ambition and electability the building blocks for a return to power are there."

To be honest, I'd have been surprised had Andrew written anything other than superlatives. Not only are more than half of the shadcab members Fabians and regular contributors to the magazine and quarterly pamphlets, there are congruences and alignments between the Society and "Starmerism", which is likely to mean the "world's oldest think tank" are the last people about to put the boot in. There are two close affinities they share which, to all intents and purposes, annexes Starmerism to the Fabian tradition rather than having an identity of its own, apart from media shorthand. For one, both are entirely patrician. They are the elites, they have the seats in the Commons, and once in government they're the ones who are going to enact change. No one doubts the importance of state power, least of all the right, but the Fabians actively foreswear anything but the constitutionalist road. Even though (some forms of) extra parliamentary activity is right and proper in the most stuffy political theory, there is no room for this in the Fabian tradition. The Labour Party exists to elect the enlightened reformers who are going to make nice policies, and the labour movement exists to support the Labour Party - an aristocratic inversion of socialist politics if there ever was one. Set in its context, Keir's preference for management consultants to advise on party organisation, the internal authoritarianism of banning debates and suspending constituency officers, and his inability to challenge what is and isn't permitted in discussing Coronavirus is all of a piece stamped with Fabian Society branding.

The second issue is inseparable from the first: the absence of hegemony. Because there's no room in Fabianism for struggle other than over the ballot box, Gramsci is a revelation and an abomination to such politics. There might be lip service paid to aligning Labour with the culture of voters, which is what we're hamfistedly seeing with all the Blue Labour crap, but there is no conception of a class politics (beyond their own doxa of unthought, middle class and managerialist assumptions), let alone trying to build an alliance on the basis of our interests necessitating a full spectrum struggle in the workplaces, in the communities, and in wider culture. The job is to present policies, look good in the media, and get people to vote for the party. Granted the absolute privilege this has in the Fabian imagination, it's hardly revelatory they lay the blame for Labour's 2019 defeat on the policy menu in the manifesto than the substantive other factors. Hence Keir's preference for process criticisms at Prime Minister's Questions, the relentless focus on critiquing "incompetence" over arguing the politics, and the shameless tailing of Marcus Rashford on school meals are all sympomatic of a non-Gramscian approach to politics. Indeed it's an interesting paradox of the Fabian tradition that for all its stress on elite decision-making and getting the enlightened few into the cockpit of government how it fights shy of the business of political leadership.

It is, of course, possible Labour could win an election on this basis. It's also possible the muscular centrism promised by the Biden administration might find an echo in the barely noticeable twitching of the shadow cabinet. But the problem with Fabianism, and by the practice of Starmerism seen these last nine months, is it privileges a very narrow range of activity. Where Keir Starmer is proving pro-active is in internal party struggles, but the end result is a party retreating from what nourishes it culminating in an empty vessel destined for a buffeting by the winds and random squalls of politics. Sticking to Fabianism is, obviously, what Keir finds comfortable, but for all the talk of seriousness and wanting to win power he is, unknowingly, plodding along the road least likely to get the party there.

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Wednesday 20 January 2021

Donald Trump's Last Speech

Begins at 39:15.

TR;DW: More lies and bullshit, no sympathy for the 400,000 dead, "vets are beautiful", and a pledge to return in "some form".

Tuesday 19 January 2021

A Party for Management Consultants

Chatting to a stats guy at a meeting down Stoke Council's Civic Centre many years ago, we got round to the subject of consultants. This was always a hot button topic for the local authority. There seemed an unerring coincidence between the appointment of new executive-level officers and the consultation firms who were subsequently contracted in to do some work. And this was in the thick of the government's swingeing cuts to local government where hiring consultants was always politically problematic. To cut the story short, said stats guys said all one group did for a £15k job were tap him up for some figures in the Council's database and re-present them in a PowerPoint to the chief officers. Nice work if you can get it.

Interesting then when news filtered out about Labour's decision to hire management consultants to oversee 'Organise to Win 2024', a review of party structures and what organisation steps it will take to, well, win the 2024 general election. A bit strange for the self-styled election winning specialists to put one of their core competencies out to tender, but perhaps not when politics is just managerialism to these people. As for the consultants themselves, Q5 bill themselves as a "nimble" business who offer bespoke solutions for the challenges facing business. Or, as they put it, they are "award-winning experts in organisation change" and try hooking in potential customers with "deep in the Q5 DNA, was the assurance that each project would bring change that really sticks." As an example of their wares, this report on the "connective organisation" - what business has to look like in the 2020s to survive and thrive - is freely available. Call me a miserable old grumble, but there doesn't appear anything in here that post-Fordist and Italian autonomist writers weren't scribbling about in the 1980s and early 90s. I suppose yesterday's insights can look profound with a few zippy slides and the heavy deployment of management speak, particularly among Labour Party tops ignorant of the most elementary social theory.

Let's strip away the bullshit and call Q5 what they are: restructure specialists. And, readers might be interested to learn, their resume lists them as previously working with the Home Office at some unspecified point in time. Were they called in to ease the passage of cuts to that department? It certainly wasn't for helping Priti Patel develop a sensitive ear to the needs of the "stakeholders". And so what are they for? What possibly can their review of the Labour Party tell the leadership that neither the critical No Holding Back nor the soft soapy Labour Together reports were able to?

It's difficult to say, because the remit of the Organise to Win review is not public. We can only piece it together from clues, such as Labour's job advert for Executive Director - Elections and Field Delivery. This is interesting because not only does this job require "Leadership of Field and elections centric function" (what language is this?) but also responsibility for "delivering the transformation programme needed to win the 2024 General Election (Organise to Win 2024)." Additional to the usual gubbins about "strategic direction" and "building an organising culture", we learn the focus of O2W (as it is officially christened) is the implementation of the review, "focusing on how data is used and communicated across the organisation to deliver the operational objectives." Is that it? Seriously? Party full-timers, MPs bag carriers, and constituency officials were getting this sort of stuff fed to them 10 years ago. Why reinvent the wheel when most of these people are still in the party, still tilt more to the right (and so from Keir Starmer's perspective, are "safe"), and have actual campaigning experience? Or even the Labour leader could take a chance and speak to current and ex-Momentum cadre, who know a thing or two about using data to aid campaigning. Doesn't the party already possess the wit, knowledge, and resource to do this itself?

Which begs the question. Why? It might be tempting to search for some sort of family link or cronyism to provide an explanation for why the Labour leadership, or the "Senior Leadership Team" as they now style themselves, are wasting yet more members' money, but this is not it. The "SLT" are approaching the institutional disadvantages Labour suffers vis a vis the Tories' considerable advantages as a managerial as opposed to a political problem. Knowing David Evans's circulation in the strategy and comms universe, and Keir Starmer's previous life as the boss of the Crown Prosecution Service, the preference for organisational solutions would appear natural to them. Labour is a severely dysfunctional outfit in which senior employees have a habit of going off-piste if they don't like the leader. It is also a largely voluntary organisation peopled by, well, people who happen to have minds of their own. And as we saw in 2019 and 2017, the actual party organisation of the election was a complete mess with little strategic allocation of resources, if not actual sabotage. Why a gunslinging firm of hip consultants are attractive to Keir and chums is how they can propose recommendations independently of political pressure and without factional interference. Save the factional interference and preconceptions of the SLT, of course. There won't be any challenges to hierarchical thinking here.

The second is the messaging Q5's hire sends out to the consultation community. One of the ways New Labour were able to, for a time, bind some sections of capital to their fate was by building on John Major's marketisation of public service provision and use the Treasury's largesse to buy loyalty through juicy procurement and public-private partnership contracts. A practice the Tories have happily carried on, gifting us, among other things, the disasters of test and trace and the meagre food parcels. Getting the consultants in to effectively determine the vote-catching function of the Labour Party signals to the market that under a Keir Starmer government, there will still be plenty of opportunities for them. Perhaps it might encourage some to play nice and sign a few round robin letters when the time comes. As with Keir's courting of the media, it's about sending a business as usual message.

The obvious problem is you can't solve political problems by organisational means. Improving on a data-driven infrastructure is a must for any modern party, but if "campaigning" is defined in narrow, voter ID terms designed for data collection, it woefully falls short. If the eventual O2W recommendations are imposed, which they will be, in a top down fashion, it will surely alienate members, turn activists off, and canvassing teams will be stretched. Just like the old times. And even worse if this comes bound up with a managerial as opposed to a political vision, and one in which the left are considered a matter of no consequence, this is going to cause serious problems and put torpedoes in the water pointing at Labour's electoral hopes.

Relying on management consultants shows yet again the way Labour under Keir Starmer is heading. And that direction is away from the interests of our movement, of working people and their families, and most problematic for him, in a direction progressively further from victory.

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Monday 18 January 2021

Preserving Tory Authority

"We're going to abstain in Labour's support for Universal Credit", wrote Boris Johnson to his troops on the parliamentary party's WhatsApp group, "because people are going to be nasty to us on Twitter." Okay, I'm paraphrasing but Johnson's statement provided a half-arsed excuse for not reversing their planned UC cut. This was good enough for most - only six MPs voted with the opposition - and so the Tories find themselves smacked by a slipper of their own making. At least this time sundry backbenchers had the sense to keep their traps shut and not attack the low paid and the poor publicly.

If you are among the happy few who watch the Tories, you'll know there is something to Johnson's stated position that extra support will be available after the expiration of the £1,000 UC uplift in April. It's also probably fair to say Johnson himself doesn't know what this is going to be yet as reports keep trickling out of behind-the-scenes barneys between ministers. As widely reported, Dishy Rishi is leading the charge for a reversion to the mean (which, politically speaking, is also a reversion to the mean) and wants the increase scrapped. To soften the blow, he'll "offer" a £500 one-off payment - a sod off and don't bother us again if there ever was one. This still leaves UC recipients £10/week out of pocket, and also means anyone forced onto the dole as Downing Street's depression wreaks havoc after April are going to have to subsist on £75/week. The Tory instinct might be to hammer the poor, but some are wise to the political cost this now carries. There is significant pushback in cabinet against Superspreader Sunak, and many a red wall Tory have vented their displeasure over the 1922 Zoom chats. And so the Tories stumble on until March with this albatross honking about their necks.

It makes for a puzzling scene to be sure. An active, almost masochistic desire for pain. Except this time there's no Miss Whiplash, dingy basements, and exclusive snaps splashed across the Sunday papers. So why do we find the Tories groping toward the most damaging position to them? For one, it's a partial misreading of the situation. Cruelty, an actively cultivated characteristic of British politics is the monopoly property of the Tories and so for several generations of MPs socialised into politics between the Thatcher and Dave years the assumption is no one lost votes for kicking the poor. And this is probably the case for most Tories sat on fat majorities in gammon country, but, as we have seen for our red wall'ers matters are different, and it could make the difference between a Tory majority or not in 2024. But then again, the Tories have good reasons to be complacent. They have the press on their side. They drive the news agenda for broadcast journalism, and so enjoy a near-monopoly on popular political commentary. Memories are short and other issues are going to be at the forefront three years hence. Lastly, the opposition actively fights shy from contesting the fundamentals, even when matters are in their favour. Who wouldn't rest on their laurels if benefiting from a benign state of affairs such as this?

The second is genuine paralysis which, interestingly, the Tories' institutional advantage aggravates. There is no pressure on Johnson to come to a firm decision about Universal Credit, and so he can leave matters to his subordinates to bore it out among themselves. However, what Johnson is alive to is, despite the warm swaddling from the press, not ceding political initiative to Labour. As with Brexit and their atrocious handling of the pandemic, the consistency throughout both has been the preservation of government authority. This hasn't entailed competency, but reaffirming the chain of command with the executive at the centre of every decision. This authority cannot be and isn't ceded either to SAGE, sundry scientists, public health advocates, local government, and certainly not the leadership of the Labour Party. Johnson jealously guards this above all else because, as every government since Thatcher has shown, once the authority of a government disintegrates they're finished and there is no coming back. Therefore Johnson is willing to risk political pain because, not unreasonably, the supposition of conceding too much jeopardises his grip on power.

Yet, as we know, Johnson has backpedalled in the full view of the public on school meals and each of the three national lockdowns. He has managed to get away with the latter because the Tories, aided and abetted by Labour, have (successfully) taken the politics out of the Coronavirus crisis. When Johnson moves to introduce new rules and curbs on freedoms, these are not presented as or percieved by the public as personal defeats but a (belated) technocratic response to the situation. They're certainly not triumphs for Labour or people pressure, but because the politics of the pandemic are not up for discussion the Tories can and do present themselves as responding to the moment. Hence, Johnson continues to be unpopular among those he's already unpopular among, but where it counts - the base, the swing voters blind to the politics of the situation, his authority is preserved.

Political science isn't rocket science, and the key to challenging the Tory hold on the polls is, well, challenging the Tories. Yet Labour creeps about terrified of its own oppositional shadow, not wanting to offend or being seen to "play politics". From the off the Tories have bent the Coronavirus crisis to their political will, while Keir Starmer thinks the laurels are going to fall into his lap for playing fair and keeping schtum. It's pitiful.

And so Johnson isn't about to cede control on social security, Covid, or anything else for that matter. This makes him and his government highly vulnerable to attack. Rigid structures are always the easiet to break. But instead of the criticisms from Labour crowding around its base, and directing public opinion into pushing the whole rotten Tory edifice over there is a gentle breeze of process criticisms. And tumbleweed.

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Sunday 17 January 2021

Flip & Fill ft. Kelly Llorenna - True Love Never Dies

After a 12-hour marking marathon, there isn't much room tonight for writing. Luckily, this cheesy clubland classic has come flying to the rescue!

Saturday 16 January 2021

Questioning Green Non-Violence

Why did Black Lives Matter rapidly spread over the course of 2020? Because the protests against the extra-judicial killing of George Floyd immediately took a violent turn, and bust open the horizon of the possible. In his interview with Alex, Andreas Malm, author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, argues the green and environmental movement have to learn from BLM and ditch its dogmatic adherence to non-violence. Such a strategic shift is not just about the severity of the climate crisis coming, but also the easy availability of targets for a militant green vandalism. Andreas suggests the infrastructure of fossil fuels is all around us, and as it is the rich who are driving climate change with their conspicuous consumption their property should be fair game. Ecology is class politics too.

Certainly an interesting and thought-provoking piece. Could the green movement here ever turn to the property destruction of The Monkey Wrench Gang?

As always, please check out the Politics Theory Other archive and help build new left media by putting pennies in Alex's piggy bank.

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Friday 15 January 2021

Super Mario Bros 2 for the Nintendo Entertainment System

In a year already fraught with controversy, it's aposite to dredge up something of a wedge issue: Super Mario Brothers 2 for the trusty Nintendo Entertainment System. Writing about this game in the 21st century comes with two closely adjacent pitfalls. The first is casting keystrokes over a video game franchise which is the best known, best-selling and, best long-running(?) in all recorded history. Not only is there an aura blazing around it, fizzing with the props for single-handedly reversing the fortunes of video gaming in the United States, its much beloved status, its synonymity with Nintendo, and the respect afforded it by game critics means there is little to be witten and said that hasn't already been written and said. From whence does an original insight into these games spring? Especially when considering any of the original trilogy published on the NES? The second, as folks who know their game history, um, know, are the "controversies" around SMB II. I.e. How this was not the same Super Mario Bros 2 released in Japan and was in fact a reskin of Doki Doki Panic, a Nintendo-produced licensed platformer using Fuji TV characters. Why was this controversial? Because it departed significantly from the core game mechanics the series became known for, earning the game notoriety and, for some, black sheep status among the Mario run of games. A Loki to SMB I's Baldr, or something.

Not having a NES in the olden days meant it was about nine years ago when I first played SMB II, and this was after bagging my long-coveted SNES and acquiring Super Mario All-Stars. Playing each of the games, it was the first and the third installments that attracted my attention. If I'm honest, I found the second game a bit on the bewildering side. And so time passed, got an NES eventually and then a trusty RetroN5 and latterly, a good condition boxed copy of the game. With work in festive abeyance and having had it stare at me from the shelf for too long, it was high time to take a butchers.

Having not played any Mario game for a while certainly helped, which meant SMB II could be apppreciated on its own terms. The main gripe most have, which "un-Mariofies" it, is the abandonment of the familiar jump-on-baddies-heads move to dispatch them to jump-on-enemies-to-pick-them-up. Say what? In SMB II your player character, of which more in a moment, scoops up the enemy and you can carry them around indefinitely. Or, if you like, throw them at another baddy to off them. Picking stuff up and mastering its timing and use is as crucial to the gameplay as bouncing from platform to platform. Each stage has vegetables sprouting from the ground, which the player can pull up and use as objects to throw at bad 'uns besetting you. There are also potions to be found which, if dropped, summon a secret door leading the player to "sub-space", a mirror universe that might (depending on where you drop the door) yield a power up mushroom extending the life bar from two to three hits, and the possibility of redeeming vegetables pulled here in return for coins, which are used on a slot machine bonus stage inbetween levels. Apart from this, it's A-to-B platforming. Make a way through the levels, see off the small end-of-stage baddies where you're greeted by Birdo, who was to become something of a staple in the Mario pantheon, and then move on to the next stage.

Apart from the bonce-bouncing, there are three further significant departures from Mario's initial Super outing. The first of these is the comparative lack of secrets. I suppose some might get their exploration jollies from dropping the secret door potion in different places, but hidden places are fewer in number despite levels, ostensibly, being less linear than its predecessor. The second is far more variety when it comes to boss fights. Instead of variations on Bowser, one faces the henchmen and women of the evil Wart. These, inevitably, involve picking stuff up and lobbing them at the enemy while evading their attacks. Learning the patterns here aren't difficult, though the challenge is uneven from boss to boss, and they only take a few hits - or explosions if you're throwing bombs back at them. The third departure is the choice of character. One can choose Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad. No rescue-the-princess rubbish this time characteristic of nearly all Mario games. Each of these have their own features - Luigi can jump the highest, Princess can hover a short while after jumping, and Toad can pick stuff up quicker and run super fast if carry an enemy or vegetable. However, as this is 1980s Nintendo we can't well have a female character defy stereotypes and so she's the only one who carries a penalty - she can't pick stuff up quickly because upper body strength is unwomanly. However, interestingly, it's Mario who's the worst character because he has no special abilities at all. So much for the super ... There's also a couple of gameplay changes, which gives it a bit more variety. There's more verticality, i.e. levels mving from down to up rather than left to right, and one can revisit areas in a stage until it's completed. The second is retrieving the key necessary for the end of the level. Braving baddies and picking it up attracts the attention of Phanto, an evil mask who'll chase after you until you put the key in the exit door. It certainly makes for a hurried and different pace to the considered platforming the game otherwise encourages.

All told, SMB II was well received by critics at the time, and they were right in their assessment. It is an excellent platformer featuring well-designed levels, a decent learning curve, the introduction of environments that were to become genre staples (leafy areas, desert areas, arctic areas), and superbly paced gameplay. Few are the blind jumps, and while there are occasions where the player has to pause to think about their next move, it's never frustrating. Indeed, as excellent as SMB I is, the sequel never had me almost throwing the joypad against the wall. On this score, from a gameplay perspective it holds up well as a retro rarity still worth playing, helped by some of the nicest graphics the NES were capable of and an arrangement of classic chip tunes that, for me at least, I never found irritating.

And the controversy? This is almost entirely a feature of the internet age when gamers starting getting on Usenet, bulletin boards, and latterly YouTube. At the time SMB II fitted in because the Mario formula was still in its infancy. Therefore the game did not stand out like a sore thumb as one might suppose, especially when considered alongside Nintendo's other flagship franchise, The Legend of Zelda, and the difference between the first and second games in that series. And when the Super Mario Bros 3 juggernaut rolled out, it combined the best elements of it predecessors - the plentiful secrets, proper power ups, and head boffing action, with the ability to pick (some) stuff up, light puzzling, decent end bosses, and ambitious, properly thought-out and non-repeating level design. That's right, SMB III is the logical progression from both games. Besides, if the main gripe people have with a classic game like SMB II is almost entirely retrospective and there's no real beef with the game itself beyond taste, then at the time Nintendo made the right decision to push this one out the door. It is worth playing again, and again, and again, and this will forever be the case.

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Thursday 14 January 2021

The Problems with Scottish Labour

"Looks like those who have led a three year campaign of briefings to journalists, leaks of private conversations and the constant feeding of stories to the media to bring down a decent and honest man have succeeded. These flinching cowards and sneering traitors make me sick." So said Neil Findlay after news broke of Richard Leonard's immediate resignation as Scottish Labour leader. As the LabourList piece notes, this appeared the final act of a politician wishing to preserve some dignity as the internal balance of forces tilted against him, the unwelcome aftershock coming on the heels of Summer's attempted putsch. As far as Keir Starmer is concerned, as per the grapevine, he won't be sorry to see Richard journey to the backbenches. His card already marked for his prior association with the ancien regime, instructing Labour MSPs to vote alongside the SNP, Liberal Democrats, and the Greens against Brexit was in defiance of the new party line accepting the deal. However, as The Times reports it sounds like Richard was offered a deal by head office he couldn't refuse. It is suggested a number of would-be Labour donors were never going to open their wallets had he remained in position. Murky.

No one should soft soap the position Scottish Labour are in. The vote's in freefall and are likely to come third at this year's Holyrood elections, again. Could this predicament have been avoided? After all, Richard was elected leader with the winds of enthusiasm gusting about his sails. Following the 2017 general election, the idea Scotland was irredeemably lost to the unionist parties appeared, for the moment, something of a premature declaration as the Tories surged forward and Labour and the LibDems posted a modest recovery. There was hope the leftism of the Corbynist prospectus might cut across the politics of independence and preface an insurgency. Alas, alas. In the end, while Richard tried his hand at Corbynism with Scottish characteristics he was hemmed in by two realities of much-reduced Labourism. The over-preponderance of councillors, officials, and MSPs who are so far gone that they treat the SNP as a greater enemy than the Tories. And the second is the base of Scottish Labour itself. The scab wing of the party can get away partnering with Tories because the bulk of the base is wedded to a unionist politics whose material wellspring has long vanished.

Historically, Labourism in Scotland, as it did elsewhere, grew out of industry. To cut a very long story short, from the Second World War onwards the relationship between industrial strength and the union was obvious: the commitment to full employment was delivered by nationalised industry and state intervention in the economy. In the various permutations of the very British form of Keynesianism following the war (ad hoc, constantly changing, (naturally) erring to employers over employees), labour had a clear stake in the maintenance of the union. Where the radical left had influence, above all in the old Communist Party, this was based on an economistic conceptualisation of class politics, an economism fed by the everyday industrial life of Scottish proletarians. Before the 1990s, it's therefore unsurprising Scottish nationalism was an ideological hodge podge swinging from the far right to the left, the electoral nourishment of the SNP provided by the self-important heft of the petit bourgeois.

When Thatcher came to power, she began her assault on the labour movement by shuttering nationalised industry and forcing others to the wall by imposing strict market-led criteria on them. This stoked mass unemployment which provided favourable ground for the open warfare her government was to declare on the miners. Scotland naturally suffered too as joblessness bit. With the miners dispensed with and having foisted the government's authority over the civil service, teachers, and the public sector, she came for local government. Keen to apply the whip of market discipline and consumer satisfaction to local authorities, the Poll Tax - raising more funds through local taxation - was imposed as a steep flat tax. Scotland was the pilot a full year ahead of England and Wales and sparked off a mass movement of resistance and non-payment. In a two-step move in the space of a decade, the Tories had destroyed the economic basis for working class unionism in Scotland and compounded their difficulties by stirring up resentment against them and the UK state. The clock was ticking, unless it could be replaced by something else. It wasn't. New Labour introduced the Scottish Parliament and created new opportunities for a layer of careerist Labour politicians, but also opened the door for the SNP too. As Tony Blair and Gordon Brown refurbished the public sector with their PFI scams and public/private partnerships, this delivery of shiny new buildings and services from above was not matched by the kinds of interventions necessary for rebuilding Scotland's economic base. This paternalism was, itself, a consequence of the labour movement's decline and growing estrangement from the party by working people, which primarily benefited the SNP. And so when the Tories returned to office with the LibDems and, again, struck at the supports of the union with their austerity programme and confected rows with Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, Labour accelerated its demise by throwing their lot in with the Tories against Scottish independence. They even tailed all their arguments in favour of the union, including threatening to take Scotland to the cleaners in post-independence negotiations. As night followed day, Scottish Labour were eviscerated at the subsequent general election. Funnily enough, over six years later this disaster authored and owned by the Labour right has dropped right down the memory hole.

Where does this leave Scottish Labour now? With an ageing support base who are not getting replaced, like for like. And meanwhile the new base built by Labour in England and Wales, and who should power Labour to future victories provided they're not frittered away, are not available in Scotland because the rising class of workers, our natural support, thoroughly back the SNP. The Corbynist moment of mass movement activation we saw in England between 2015 and 2017 came a year early during the independence referendum in Scotland, and it was the SNP who benefited. Scottish Labour then has two choices. Staying as it is, which ultimately was the strategy Richard also ended up pursuing, means we're locked in a death grip with a Tory party fighting over the same fast diminishing Tory base. There is, however, something else. It could think more strategically about the voter coalition of the party, the kinds of people it needs to win over if Scottish Labour is to be renewed, and the strategy that goes with it. There was a beginning under Richard Leonard because, like Jeremy Corbyn, he recognised the importance of community organising to winning back trust and building new support. However, trying to contest the SNP for their core vote is outside of Labour's comfort zone. For one, it means thinking about issues around hegemony rather than just offering a dish of nice policies - something Labour is congenitally ill-equipped to do thanks to the dead hand of the Fabian tradition. It means consistent anti-Toryism, which Scottish Labour are completely hopeless on and, painfully, it means bidding farewell to a section of the unionist base. In other words, the course that can re-establish the party in the long-term is going to be awful in the short. Things have to get worse before they can start getting better.

Unfortunately for the branch office, recent pronouncements by Keir Starmer about matters Scottish doesn't fill one with confidence, especially with his strategy, such as it is, driven by the perceived electoral calculus south of the border than helping the party stage a come back. Therefore, for comrades in Scotland, and watchers of Scottish Labour generally, the candidates who come forward for the leader's post have to show they understand the hole the party is in before offering a way out. If they don't, if we're going to get promises of "taking the fight to the SNP", banging on about the NHS and education, the status quo on the referendum question, and a load of bilge about the "priorities of the Scottish people", then in several years there'll be another resignation and another downshift in expectations. The new contest presents an opportunity for fresh thinking, and it says everything about Scottish Labour that even before would-be leaders declare their intentions, having this moment squandered because they cannot even recognise the task is the most likely outcome.

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Telegraphing Compliance

The post below should be a lesson to everyone. Read things properly. Keir Starmer will not be having a regular column in The Telegraph

In a throwaway line in The Indie, we learn Keir Starmer will shortly avail himself of a weekly article in The Telegraph. This might seem an odd decision for several reasons. As the house journal of the most unhinged sections of the Conservative Party, there aren't too many Labour-leaning voters to be found turning its pages. Indeed, according to 2017 data the Telegraph is the most Tory of the papers, with 79% of its readers voting for Theresa May versus 12% who went for Labour. What's the game then?

Five weeks after he became Labour leader, Keir Starmer was allowed to have a soft focus article in The Telegraph about VE Day. Back then, this caused a scratching of heads and a deal of criticism, and this very blog noted how it signalled (some might say, telegraphed) his compliance with the establishment-determined rules of the political game. And few would dispute Keir started as he meaned to carry on with his reluctance to rock the boat and even back campaigning unions when they had the full weight of public opinion behind them.

How then should we assess the fruits of this strategy so far and, in particular, his (by now) multiple dalliances with the Telegraph? As of the moment, the paper's coverage of the Labour leader is much more balanced. Sticking 'Keir Starmer Telegraph' into Google this morning gives the following top three entries. Top is the laughable 'The vaccine miracle would never have happened under Prime Minister Starmer', then 'Keir Starmer's family agenda is a threat to the Tories', and thirdly 'Sir Keir Starmer rules out major changes to Brexit deal'. The media watchers in LOTO would be quite happy with two out of three. And yet, again, what is the point? Few would-be Labour voters are going to see the missives, and especially so as they are filed behind the paper's paywall, where presumably Keir's future contributions will be lodged.

Almost a year on the essentials of the compliance argument holds, but what relationship Keir is trying to strike isn't entirely a relationship of subservience, of demonstrating how safe one's pair of hands are to the interests the Tory press hold dear. There is a pro-active element to this strategy. The first, as we saw back in May, is a means of rendering Keir familiar to right wing readers. If he spends the next several years of ghost written columns labouring on Blue Labour themes, like praising the army of waxing lyrical about Christianity, the idea is uncontroversial pronouncements on core Tory concerns will endear Keir and make it more difficult for the press to demonise him as per his predecessor (and, for that matter, predecessors). Besides, surely it would be bad form for the Telegraph to lead a full-throated denuniciation of their new star columnist?

The second is disruption. In the game of Westminster thrones, having a column in Boris Johnson's former paper might irk him a little, but the presence of Keir in the most Tory of Tory papers disarms the inevitable attacks and scrambles their coherence. If he's so appalling and dangerous, why has this pillar of the Conservative establishment given him a platform? How can the things nasty Tory journalists are saying about him be true if, in the pages of the Telegraph, he's saying something different entirely and Tory-minded readers can see what he has to say in his own words? And if he's planning on stealing our Brexit, dozens of filings say otherwise - occasionally back up by Telegraph editorial comment on his musings.

This is what you might call clever-clever politics, or playing chess five moves ahead. Keir Starmer and his helpers know that to win the red wall back and make advances elsewhere, Labour has to pierce the blue wall: the near monopoly the Tories have on popular political coverage in this country. Getting a Telegraph column fits well within this strategy, even if its audience is nowhere near as broad as The Mail and The Sun. Could it work? Possibly. But if the price is moving to the right, not challenging the basis of Tory power and eschewing the interests of Labour's existing voter coalition, such prostration will be for nought.

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Wednesday 13 January 2021

Not Expecting Foie Gras

The exposure of the food parcel scam across social media and the rapid about-turn by the government reminds us, despite having a seemingly unassailable majority, how the Tories can be pushed into reverse. That said, lost among yesterday's furore were the voices of people who've got by using these packages or have survived thanks to a local food bank. In this guest post, comrade G offers her two penneth informed by her experiences.

I was dismayed waking up this morning to see there were plans just to make the food parcels larger. The government's u-turn will help, but this wasn’t the point. The big issue is many struggling families have been made to feel like second class citizens begging for food, because they can’t be trusted to spend a £30 voucher wisely for their children. Looking at social media, I’m glad I was not the only one feeling such anger at this.

The feeling you get when you go to a food bank or have to pick up food parcels from school is horrible. I've long gone beyond caring what others think, but it’s still uncomfortable knowing people either pity you or look down on you. And who knows how a lot of the other parents feel when their self-esteem may be even lower.

Then there's having to interrupt the school and work routines to collect the food parcels (because many supported by these schemes are in work – shock!) but still having to fit in another food shop as this does not obviously cover food for the whole family for a week. I managed over the first lock down to organise our meal planning to only have to go to the supermarket once every 2 weeks (skimmed UHT is actually okay at a push – we were not expecting foie gras). The fewer the trips to the supermarket, the lower the chance of catching Covid. It's cheaper doing it this way too for a variety of reasons, not just fuel costs. The half hour getting to and from secondary school could have been spent earning that fiver to then be able to choose your own food. And no one thinks about the dispensing end of these food package schemes. The teachers have this weird extra job on top of everything else expected of them. Even with masks they're the ones handling the bags. It's all adding to the risk of exposure to covid.

Then there's the food itself. Yes, there are some nice things and I am always grateful. But, likewise, with the food bank, because it is stuff you have not planned, you then have to be inventive and plan around a flipping bag full of stuff. I cook things in bulk which saves time and money, and that allows for more expensive things like nuts, seeds, dried fruit, fresh fruit! So then you get this bag, and you're like fuck - okay, that's a soup I'm going to have to cook, and what the hell am I going to have to buy to go with random items I don’t usually use. Sounds really pathetic, but you're really having choice taken away, and adding to your workload. To survive on a low income, you have to organise so much and this is a job in itself. It’s all these little details of hassle which add up to huge stresses. And ffs, it's not more food in the parcels that's needed, it's the cash. To spend on my drugs obviously!

It's all these little things which is the life on low income/benefits that some people don't understand otherwise they'd be fighting for it. Or they choose not to understand it because they simply don’t care.

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Tuesday 12 January 2021

The Pandemic Did Not Cause the Capitol Riot

Over-long, bloated, incoherent. If you're interested in a patchwork quilt of an essay peddling a tendentious thesis and littered with wrong observations, the latest from overrated right wing historian Niall Ferguson might just be up your street. Belabouring the point Trumpism should be seen as a virus, Ferguson suggests the body politic's four-year bout of The Donald and all his works might have conferred herd immunity against this sort of politics and, just possibly, normality is about to resume. Which, given the election of uber centrist Joe Biden, seems obvious for the most naive and impressionistic among us. Okay, we'll put that to one side for the moment and concentrate on the one-half of his argument given away in the title: "Pandemics have always bred political lunacy."

Skimming through the facile comparisons with plagues past (he's a historian, don't you know), we arrive at the meat of his argument. He writes, "Pandemics, remember, are associated with religious and political extremism. The fear of illness, mutual suspicion, quack theories, hypochondria, hyper-skepticism and general mental dislocation caused by social distancing, lockdowns and unemployment — taken together, these things tend to generate outlandish behavior." A peculiar contention applied to our Coronavirus-cratered times, because we can look right across the Western world and particularly several European nations blasted by the Covid blight and yet ... nothing. Even jolly old Britain, home too of political polarisation has not seen anything like the political violence that boiled over in the Capitol last week. Therefore Ferguson's thesis, that the pandemic is somehow responsible for an aborted, ham-fisted, and inchoate coup that was a few months in the making is on shaky ground. Even weaker is his claim violence associated with Black Lives Matter protests had the same root. Nothing to do with the extra judicial killing of George Floyd and the subsequent cop rampage across dozens of American towns and cities.

This is not accidental. Conservatism is a fundamentally dishonest enterprise. Its attempt, everywhere and always, is to pretend the minority interest of capital and the class it feeds is the universal interest. They preside over a system founded on antagonism but cannot acknowledge it openly. Instead, their pursuit of class war is at times consciously, at times unconsciously swathed in moralising against the poor, the (ostensibly) technocratic management of crisis, or in backward looking national projects. It's a collective act of sublimation, and it's the task of their intellectuals, like Ferguson, to wrap these ideas up in hocus pocus profundities. His plague thesis is partly about providing reassurance for a conservative-minded audience. Don't worry, these outbursts are the consequence of an external entity putting our society under pressure. Everything is otherwise tickety boo. Hence, like all conservatism, it's part distortion, misrecognition, and distraction. Addressing why BLM is a thing, why even Trumpism is a thing raises very worrying questions for the conservative mindset. Naturally, as a good rightwinger with a grift to protect, Ferguson skirts over them.

It's this "externality" thesis that allows his leap to the next proposition: the return of centrism. Assimilating the spread of political ideas to viral metaphors is boring and unoriginal, but it allows Ferguson to pad his essay out with a precis of when this has been accomplished in the past, and boosts his idea about how America is shaking off Trumpism and developing a strengthening immunity to future infection. If a keystroke could make it so. While recognising the possibility of a resurgent Trumpist movement, he believes the strength of the political centre stands restored. Evidence? The election of Biden, obviously. And movements within the Republican Party against Trumpism and, possibly, those who abetted its rise. Plus the narrow Democrat majority in the Senate should ensure sensible centrism holds. Deary me. Ferguson has provided a demonstration of why impressionism is best left to 19th century artists.

The grievances powering the Trump movement, its gaggle of bourgeois and petit bourgeois, the self-employed, the middle class and the lumpenised criminal elements, the social stuff of right wing populism and fascism haven't gone away. The world seems as mysterious and as threatening to them as always, with a state moving against its opponents and reinforcing its coup against the rightful winner of the presidential election. Worse, they imagine the pressure of immigration, and fear the dissolution of their privileges and senses of entitlement as socially liberal values advance and they're forced to acknowledge the existence of people who are black, hispanic, asian, queer and, yuck, proletarian. This resentment isn't going anywhere. Likewise, for the rising left who are at the sharp end of Trump's mismanagement of the pandemic and who, before, knew precarity, crap wages, frustrated aspirations, police violence, faced an at best indifferent, at worse hostile mainstream politics, and feel a fundamental unease with a system stacked against them as our people do here, are not disappearing either. Ferguson might think Biden "defeated" the left, but both the presidential election itself and the Senate run-offs in Georgia showed the absolute dependence of the Democrats on leftist mobilisation. There's little point pushing saccharine appeals for winning over Trumpists and loyal GOP voters when they can be outflanked each and every time by mobilising the considerably larger progressive base.

And so, Ferguson's nonsense reminds us of the only use for conservative intellectuals: for taking the temperature of what's swirling around their imaginary, and how they're trying to think their way through the moment. In this case, Ferguson is articulating bourgeois hopes that the movements of the extra parliamentary right and left are knackered. This means, despite everything, they're still ill-equipped to deal with American revanchism even as they make their moves to impeach Trump and prevent him from running again in 2024. Yet this ignorance, this blindness also shows they're unaware of the growing strength, the increasing confidence, and crucially the greater opportunities opening up for the left. Ferguson might think he's found reasons to hope, but his own ignorant musings show the left we have reasons to be optimistic too.

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Monday 11 January 2021

The Tory Food Parcel Scam

It says everything about the awfulness of 21st century Britain when hungry children are never far from the spotlight. The contents of food packages the government are providing poor families were revealed on social media this afternoon. The link above is supposed to show five days worth of food. Here is an itemised list. Instead of £30 worth of food, this banquet taps out at £5.22. Thin gruel for the families on the receiving end, overgenerous portions for the parcel provider, a company with form in this regard.

Some people have asked why/how this can happen, and the answer to that is a very simple: because the Tories are in power. There are a couple of things going on here. Readers will recall late last year how the Marcus Rashford-led school meals campaign forced the government's hand. At first, they set their face against the public mood, and it provoked a torrent of vintage Tory divide-and-rule. We heard about how the state shouldn't nationalise children, how feckless parents would trade food vouchers for drugs, and the usual rubbish about self-responsibility. Caught in the headlights, the Tories backpedalled faster than a seven-mile Prime Ministerial bike ride. Not only were the Tories going to make sure no child went hungry during the Christmas holidays, money was found to support these families for the next year. Overnight, the demon poor emerged into worthy objects of charity with Tories falling over themselves about how compassionate they were. Well, here are the fruits of their largesse: two bruised bananas and trio of sorry-looking apples.

This is not by accident; it is entirely a matter of design. Consistent with all governments going back to the blessed Thatcher, the default preference for state action is handing it over to the private sector to do it. Supposedly business is more efficient because they have to make a profit. For Thatcher, this was her common sense, and all of her successors have ran with it. Each and every Prime Minister, including the two Labour politicians to have occupied Downing Street in the last 40 years, have prostrated themselves before this shibboleth and, entirely not coincidentally, the sorts of interests they've tried cultivating have taken full advantage of the cash waterfall gushing forth from the Treasury. Hence stripping down a £30 food shop to a fiver's worth of grub isn't an aberration. In a system set up to shovel public money into private pockets, it's working perfectly. Just like Test and Trace. Just like PPE procurement. Just like the government's schools' laptops scheme. The service is the after thought, the bottom line is the top line.

And then we have the cynicism of the company concerned. Chartwell's is the kind of parasitic excresence that has flourished since Tony Blair went out his way to extend the outsourcing of public provision. Some head of strategic solutions has sat on a Teams meeting thinking through how much pure profit they could get away with by slashing the contents of each parcel. And because they think the recipients are unworthy and undeserving, are powerless so can't kick up a fuss, and believe the public are as unsympathetic as they, literally snatching the food out of the hands of our most vulnerable children is a fine and dandy way of securing their managerial bonuses.

As with everything about the mismanagement of the pandemic, including our current lockdown, the Tories are prioritising their class, the relationships sustaining them, and the material interests of their base above all else. This is part of a consistent and predictable pattern of behaviour, albeit the most blatantly sickening so far.

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Sunday 10 January 2021

Covid is Killing Britons Faster than WWII

Covid-19 is killing Britons at a faster rate than the Second World War did.

Using government statistics, as of this morning there were 80,868 deaths from just over three million registered infections. A fatality figure that has already passed the civilian death toll from the Blitz. During the Second World War itself, there were 454,000 combined military and civilian deaths - a rounded figure provided by parliamentary sources. Different publications quibble over a few thousand either way, but for the purposes of this exercise it will suffice.

The first UK Covid death was recorded on 6th March, which gives us 309 days between then and 9th January when deaths passed 80,000. Averaging out fatalities yields a figure of 261.7 deaths per day. Between the UK's declaration of war on Nazi Germany on 3rd September, 1939 to the surrender of Japan on 15th August 1945, there were 2,173 days. Averaging out the war dead gives us a figure of 208.9 deaths per day. Pound for pound, the Coronavirus pandemic is killing Britons at a faster rate than the deadliest conflict in human history did.

How about the First World War? This saw Britain sustain 904,867 armed personnel and civilian deaths as the result of military action. Between 4th August 1914 when the UK declared war on the German Empire to Armistice Day on 11th November, 1918, there were 1,561 days. This gives us a daily average of 579.7 deaths. We are still a long way from those figures.

Remember, the existence of the new strain and the spiralling infections we're seeing are not merely unfortunate or a matter of chance, they are because of government inaction. At every stage of the pandemic, Boris Johnson has put the perceived needs of his party and the interests they represent above public health. This is where the blame lies. The responsibility for this catastrophe belongs to him and the Conservative Party.

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Saturday 9 January 2021

A Lockdown in Name Only

Waking up early on Wednesday morning, the traffic passing by on the main road sounded as busy as normal times. Certainly not what one might expect from a third national lockdown. Because Boris Johnson had belatedly, again, decided to close schools for all but the children of essential workers and those at risk, it was reasonable to expect we might see something like March - June instead of the brief farce of a lockdown we had in November. And yet schools are reporting a large increase in the number of children who are turning up. Traffic flows in Covid-blasted London are about two-thirds of normal, and too many workplaces and businesses - self-designating as "essential" - are open.

Contrast the shambles with the messaging the government are concentrating on. At the end of last week we had Priti Patel touring the studios promising "tough crackdowns" on people "flouting" Covid restrictions. Apparently they are worried about "compliance". Some want to see the two-metre social distancing measure reintroduced and a re-emphasis on stay-at-home messaging, as per the new Chris Whitty-fronted TV campaign. To back this up, our friends in Derbyshire plod are getting twitchy again and have absurdly fined two women who drove five miles for a walk in the country. Meanwhile, infections are soaring out of control, hospitals are swamped and, reportedly, the police are now ferrying emergency cases to hospital thanks to the inundation of the Ambulance Service.

This is a lockdown in name only, and it stands to reason the number of cases and the numbers of deaths are not acts of God. They are the victims of social murder caused by the Tories privileging the health of class relations above the health of the public, and this simply is not acceptable. If the government were serious they would be taking homeless people off the streets, like they did last Spring. They would properly pay businesses bar the most essential to close, and this would include nearly all food outlets and construction, the latter of which was allowed to continue last time (nothing to do with property interests at all).

This isn't just about paying people to stay home. The government should be straightforward with the instructions it issues. First, if this was a coherent and joined-up strategy guided by driving down infections in the first instance, it wouldn't call the rules "guidance", they would be called rules. Second, there would be no wriggle room for interpretation. What is and isn't essential should be clearly specified. The rules should also be blunt about who can and can't be seen. Truth of the matter is, the bubble system is a complete joke. A couple of elderly people might be in a bubble with their daughter or son, but same daughter or son is still at work with dozens of others, similarly in "bubbles" with aged loved ones. And last of all, if the government doesn't want people travelling far for a daily constitutional they need to say so instead of letting overzealous coppers free rein to interpret the rules, thereby making the lockdown measures a laughing stock.

If the lockdown is to work, these holes in the system need filling. And if they're not, more people will die out of toxic mix of Tory incompetence and malfeasance. The measures we have to see are authoritarian, but there is nothing more authoritarian than having one's life cut short.

Therefore, it is good to see the left and the unions making the case for what needs to be done, but it can't end there. The other axis of the government's response, the prattling on about the "tough measures" aren't really about policing the lockdown, they are all about apportioning blame. The Tories have proven quite adept at convincing people to blame other people for rising Covid cases. Yes, it might be stupid to have a house party and thoughtless to walk around with a nose poking from a mask. Then again, the government spent the Summer and early Autumn encouraging people back to work, to go out, offered middle class people a bung to patronise their favourite eateries, and kept schools, colleges, universities, and most workplaces open up until Christmas, the blame doesn't lie with the public making the wrong choices. It rests with an appalling government whose idiocy has gifted us the new, infectious Covid variant - and would repeat all the same mistakes unless they are pressured and held to account. In other words, there's no use shying away from the politics as has been the approach of the Labour leadership so far. It is really a matter of life and death.

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