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.

Image Credit


Anonymous said...

Is it even mathematically possible for labour to win without Scotland and near zero enthusiasm from the party left? Just seems like this party is going nowhere fast.

Graham said...

Never has there been a more obvious time for socialist politics.

The privatised, subcontracted mess led by accountants on £1000 an hour that is test and trace is a complete fiasco. Almost a year into the pandemic it is still incapable of providing basic information about the path of transmission.

Meanwhile the NHS is delivering vaccinations at an amazing rate.

Labour is in front of an open goal but make no attempt to score.

Starmer doesn’t say anything not because he is timid, he says nothing because of his politics.

He is not going to argue for rolling back privatisation because his politics means he is in favour of more of it.

He is not going to argue against the use of private “consultants” because his politics means he wants more of them.

His predecessors introduced privatisation into health, social services and education and his politics means he will extend this if he gets the chance.

Anonymous said...

Sooner rather than later he's going to have start doing the politics, or the politics are going to do him.

Nice if it were true. But, firstly, wouldn't that simply mean the words "Arise, Lord Starmer of Fillintheblank", and twenty or thirty non-executive directorships?

And, secondly, "I fear there will a worse come in his place", to quote the immortal Bard.

Blissex said...

«And, secondly, "I fear there will a worse come in his place", to quote the immortal Bard.»

And what about a "a better"? New, New Labour could headhunt Rishi Sunak to replace Keir Starmer as leader, he is a perfect fit: 20 points in popularity more than Boris Johnson, thatcherite, minority, smarmy. Or New New Labour could beg to come back perfect "centrist" leader Chuka Umunna himself, who is electoral catnip for the upper-middle class "centrist" electors who are the majority of the voters :-).

Blissex said...

«Never has there been a more obvious time for socialist politics.»

Ah the usual leftoid delusion: for many voters that actually should be written "for lower wages and higher asset prices politics". Leftoids continue to refuse to realize that Tony Blair when in 1987 he pointed out that large parts of the electorate had changed interests, and therefore Labour needed to represent a new coalition, he was right even if his response to those changes was and remains wrong.

«Labour is in front of an open goal but make no attempt to score.»

As to this I think that there are two very different types of people that have infiltrated Labour: the believers in thatcherism and the thatcherite opportunists.

The opportunists just want better careers, look at the thatcherites across the aisle with their ministerial careers and retirement corporate sinecures, and sincerely reckon that New, New Labour's more competent thatcherism will enable them to replace their mates across the aisle. They guess that advocating social-democratic or socialist policies will not get them ministerial careers and are sure that they won't get them corporate sinecures.

The believers just want thatcherism to win, regardless of the party that wins, and so are committed to thatcherite politics for New, New Labour regardless of whether it brings electoral victory, because they want to make sure that "There Is No Alternative". Of course they wish *their* thatcherism to win so they too have career success, but they are content if disappointed when another thatcherite party wins.

My impression is that for example Peter Mandelson is a believer, Umunna seemed to me an opportunist. I suspect that Keir Starmer is mostly a believer, but not an ideological believer.

Blissex said...

the believers in thatcherism and the thatcherite opportunists.

«a surrender so abject not only did Labour accept the Thatcherite settlement, but actively deepened it.»

For the New Labour opportunists it was a surrender, but for the believers it was a deliberate choice to prevent a return to the evils of social-democracy.

«But dumping Labourist politics and stealing Tory clothes won elections, so it was worth it, right?»

Both the New Labour believers and opportunists made and make that argument, and both are wrong, but I think that the opportunists are dumb enough to think that they are right, while probably most believers realize that in 1997, 2001, 2005 it was not New Labour that won the election, but the Conservatives that lost them, as our blogger writes.

They lost them not because “the Tories themselves had to all intents and purposes disintegrated. Government authority was destroyed by the triple shocker”, as the Conservatives had a landslide in 1992 with John Major, and similar "shockers" had already happened in some form or another in the previous decade, but because of the property price crash that really started to bite just after the 1992 election. Negative equity! If in 1997 the main opposition party had been the Khmer Rouges led by Pol Pot they might have got a landslide too, such was the hatred of property rentiers for the Conservatives :-).

Note: some people reading that will ascribe my argument to my property obsession, but it is not an obsession: I don't think that higher property costs property is always and everywhere the determinant of elections. For example in 1940s-1970s it was jobs and *lower* property costs, and in other countries today higher property costs are not much of a vote moving issue, Higher property costs are important or determinant only in places where they have been made so as an explicit policy choice by the right, or where they have become so "emergently" and then used by the right. That higher property costs have been an explicit electoral policy by the right is supported by many explicit statements, for example my usual quote from

There were even prophetic council house sales by local Tories in the drive to create voters with a Conservative political mentality. As a Tory councillor in Leeds defiantly told Labour opponents in 1926, ‘it is a good thing for people to buy their own houses. They turn Tory directly. We shall go on making Tories and you will be wiped out.’ There is much of the Party history of the twentieth century in that remark.

Blissex said...

«There are plenty of wedge issues Labour has to come down on if it wants to keep its core support»

But what if the "believers" are in charge and keeping Labour's core support is not a goal, because the goal is PASOKification?

«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.»

What if they are "believers" and what matters for them is ensuring that "There Is No Alternative" more than winning elections?

What if they are "opportunists" who reckon that if the "trots" switch to abstention or waste their vote on something like the TUSC is not going to materially reduce their chances of winning if enough affluent tory electors switch to vote for them?

Anonymous said...

I'm a Labour member and I'm looking forward to *not* voting Labour in May. I'm encourging friends and workmates to *not* vote for Labour as well. Door knocking? Shag that!

Boffy said...

"Meanwhile the NHS is delivering vaccinations at an amazing rate."

Unfortunately, its also infecting tens of thousands with COVID also. before Christmas it was reported that 25% of people being treated in hospital for COVIF caught it in hospital having gone in for some other complaint. In the last 6 weeks alone, 11,000 people who went into NHS hospitals for other illnesses were infected with COVID by the NHS, and now require hospital treatment for COVID.

This is a scandal on the scale of the thousands who several years ago died from MRSA caught in hospitals. What is worse, the NHS is then knowingly sending thousands of these people it has infected with COVID out into care homes where thousands more are then dying.

The NHS is the largest single superspreader of COVID, with Care Homes being like COVID killing fields for the elderly. And it comes down to the NHS simply not introducing isolation wings or wards. Meanwhile, the Tories propose creating a generation of undereducated workers, a a result of depriving kids of 16% of their education entitlement, even though kids are not affected by COVID, by keeping schools closed.

Sleight of hand on a grand scale.

Boffy said...

"He is not going to argue for rolling back privatisation because his politics means he is in favour of more of it."

And given the abysmal performance of the NHS over COVID there would be many takers. In the MRSA scandal a few years back although thousands died having been infected in NHS hospitals there were none in private hospitals. Now we have thousands infected with COVID by the NHS, but there seems to be no cases of people being infected with it in private hospitals.

Similarly, schools closed down for years on end needlessly, and kids working-class kids deprived of necessary education, whilst the rich continue to educate their kids via the private schools, home tutors, and access via he Internet to the best educators in the world.

BCFG said...

That Boris Johnson wasn't made to resign after opening schools for one day in January, resulting in god knows how many deaths, shows what this nation is. A collection of petty bourgeois fuckwits ruled by inbreds.

The Tories reckless covid policies, too late to do anything, and when they did something it wasn't nearly enough, have resulted in more deaths than Hitler managed to inflict on the Brits and certainly more than every terrorist group in history have managed.

Yet the Tories expect a boost from their vaccines policies!

Starmer says noithing other than what he thinks is opportunistic on the day. So one day he demands schools to open, the next he says we think they should close. While Corbyn was a pathetic leader, Starmer is a pathetic policy maker. But the fuckits, who worry more about suits than policies, will forgive starmer.

On schools, I notice how the anti lockdown fanatics (5 million business owners and their families and boffy) are using schoolchildren as human shields for their genocidal and criminally reckless lets all get back shopping, please get back shopping mantra.

The demand must be, better remote learning!

Britain is a shitshow, I don't now what is more out of control, the virus or the crazed, brainwashed consumerism of the brits.

Anonymous said...

On a recent visit to the UK, I was shocked by public attitudes. I couldn't believe the laxity of wearing facemasks - where I live, it is illegal to go outside without wearing one, in the UK, even in a pharmacy I visited two of the pharmacists were not wearing masks! Let alone, on the street, etc. Covid seems like an inconvenience, not a plague.

Not quite sure why, TBH. The death of thousands seems distant from public reality - perhaps there should have been more cameras in hospitals? Perhaps Britain is simply a more selfish society?

The right-wing media reinforce doubt. Poor government communications/ indecisiveness - yet they have managed to swerve blame. Perhaps because the public itself is complicit?

Also, the government has pulled the vaccine out of the bag, which does rather shift the balance back in their favour.

In all, it seems Starmer is wise not to lay into the government at present - on both covid and Brexit the public is complicit, so it would be seen as laying into the voters.

This is not the time for campaigning - that will only happen once this is over and grinding Brexit reality sets in. No votes will be won over covid. Politically, Starmer's strategy seems wise - there are years yet to make the case for Labour.

Boffy said...

If we are going to have schools closed indefinitely, then the labour movement should demand that we have the same facilities for home learning by working-class kids as those enjoyed by rich kids. That means widespread provision of home computers, and a much better broadband infrastructure. Singapore, which has 2 Gig Broadband for nearly everyone, has been providing home schooling for its kids for years, using the best teachers and tutors to provide the education across the system, to all kids more or less equally.

It will require a different style of education, because what is required is more technicians and media production workers, who can take the educational material and put it into an interactive, media package. Indeed, we should be moving in this direction, anyway, irrespective of lockdowns, because it is more efficient. Unfortunately, its not something that can be rolled out in a matter of weeks as a solution to current problems.

Also, I'm not sure that teacher will like it, because a handful of highly skilled teachers, together with a support staff of media production workers, web designers, network administrators and so on, backed up by the same kinds of bots that currently answer your banking and other enquiries, as a result of AI, would be able to provide high quality education to all, whilst replacing tens of thousands of existing teachers.

I'm not sure that is what the teaching unions want in their current drive to keep schools closed, but ask retail workers, or former bank staff how quickly your job disappears when people move online.

Anonymous said...

"No votes will be won over covid"

If this is the case then I think we can say no votes will be won over the NHS ort health in general. You might be correct about that!

And you are assuming the virus just goes away right?

Blissex said...

«In all, it seems Starmer is wise not to lay into the government at present - on both covid and Brexit the public is complicit, so it would be seen as laying into the voters.»

Far from being being timid, Keir Starmer has been advocating hard brexit for a long time and ordered Labour MPs to vote for hard brexit in support of the ERG-endorsed Conservative hard brexit. Those been very clear, decisive moves. Even the decisions to avoid opposing various extreme Conservative bills has been far from timid, and has caused notable controversies.

As to “the public is complicit” on brexit and COVID, that is the tory public, either the affluent shoppers at Waitrose and John Lewis, or the authoritarian and english supremacists; of course Keir Starmer is pursuing the votes of the tory public, so he has to be complcit too.

BCFG said...

The anti mask brigade really are a puzzle. I can sort of get those who would rather millions of people died than they missed a day shopping for useless shit they absolutely do not need, these people are utterly brain dead, head banging consumerists (barely human and the world would be literally better off without them) or one of the 5 million business owners and their families and Boffy.

But the anti Mask people, they don’t even seem to be opposed because it might not work. They seem to be opposed because they say it is against what it means to be human, but of all the species on Earth it is humans whose nature seems most perfectly fitted to wearing masks. After all humans wear all sorts of shit, from hats to jewellery, to tattoos and have come up with a million and one ways to mutilate genitals. On top of that when ever did you see any of the animals on the plains of Africa sporting a hat?

So masks seem very human to my mind.

Maybe the anti mask brigade, who seem to be the same dumb fucks that supported Brexit (again the world would be better off without these people), associate mask wearing with the Burka. Frankly medical grade Burkas for all seems like a good demand to my mind, in fact compulsory Burka wearing would improve most people’s look.

There was some controversy over hand shaking a few years back, when the ‘enlightened’ West really made an issue of hand shaking, hand shaking was aggressively promoted and held to be a symbol of advanced civilisation, in contrast to those barbarian Muslims. It actually turns out that the barbarians were a lot more in line with science and hygiene and the ‘enlightened’ West were in fact dumb fuck dark age anti science dirty bastards.

Deviation From the Mean said...

There has been much talk of fascism in relation to Trump and fascism becomes well defined. Everyone tries to define fascism.

Of course Gramsci was the most systemic and scientific in this regard (define fascism by looking at the history of the fascist movement etc etc, in contrast to wokism and liberals who define it in unscientific ways, shouting on twitter etc). But for me trying to define fascism is a mistake.

For me fascism is simply a description, an attribute of the upper and middle classes. Define those if you like. Fascism is simply middle and upper class rule in times of acute crisis.

During the pandemic the highest death toll has been among the lower skilled workers, primarily men (nothing for the wokes to get too excited about here, though maybe some of the dead were black).

They have died because the middle and upper classes(men and women) simply refuse to give up their lifestyles under any circumstances. And this is a classic example of fascism, simply an attribute of being in a high social class and the rule of those classes both actually and ideologically.

Ergo, any party representing the Middle and upper classes is a fascist party. Which makes the current Labour party fascistic. Discuss.