Sunday 28 February 2021

George Galloway: I'm Voting Tory

A putative leftist voting Tory? What kind of mixed up place is this? Welcome to the convoluted world view of Labourist unionism as manifested by our old friend George Galloway. Getting himself trending on the Twitter, he announced to the interested how he'll be voting Tory in the constituency section of the coming Holyrood elections. This is followed by a punt for his Alliance for Unity vehicle, itself an ego mobile and a popular frontist, um, front for his Stalin-worshipping Britnat sect, the Workers Party of Britain. To think he has the chutzpah to call others out for abandoning socialist ideas.

The politics of this aren't hard to fathom, but they might seem weird for comrades unfamiliar with the Scottish scene. Scottish Labour, despite dalliances with Home Rule and being the party of the Holyrood devolution settlement, is a thoroughly unionist party. In the post-war period the might of the labour movement rested on the Scottish economy being fully integrated into the UK's, and the Keynesianism practiced by successive Westminster governments more or less maintained full employment. Labourism which, among other things, is the spontaneous empiricist mindset of the workers' movement therefore identified its prosperity with the union and the necessity to return Labour governments to govern for them. As the post-war order fell apart and along came Thatcher's governments with a new settlement of their own, the Tories dismantled the material and institutional base for unionism. Politics lags behind economics so the old teachings go, and by 2007 the success of the SNP at Holyrood put the establishment on notice. They didn't listen and thanks to Labour's cretinous behaviour in the independence referendum, almost torched its entire base. What remained of Labour vote was old, nostalgia-tinged, and mourning for a unionist settlement long dead.

George Galloway was schooled in the politics of Labour unionism when it meant something, and imbided a commitment to the UK state (and a certain soft spot for the Queen) - along with the usual left (statist) commitments to nationalisations, trade union rights, public housing, etc. His animus against separatism and Scottish nationalism is hard wired into his political DNA. Therefore what he is expressing is merely Scottish Labourism. Because it locates its (class) politics as a supplicant to the UK state, then this (small l, but often big L) loyalism is the anchor point for politics. Because the Tories, as the traditional ruling class party, unsurprisingly identify with their state the common ground between Labour and the Conservatives (and the Liberal Democrats) on the state trumps the divisions between them. Their common enemy is the SNP and any other nationalist party. Hence, in the recent past, we've seen leading Scottish Labour figures call for tactical votes for the Tories because, believe it or not, they are the lesser evil.

This politics is utterly bankrupt. For all the giddy Galloway goading of Scottish nationalism, Labour loyalism overlooks British nationalism and how its politics disrupts and disperses the possibility of (re)founding the party on class politics. One of the contenders in Scottish Labour's leadership election recognised this (in part), but then Monica Lennon didn't win. Nor does Galloway appear to understand the first thing about class and class politics in Scotland. If he did, he wouldn't be buddying up with Tories for a start.

Then again, the Galloway project has always been about him and his notoriety. He happily foxtrotted across the class line by aligning with Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, enjoyed cosy "debates" with Steve Bannon and, how could we forget, jumped on the Donald Trump train and called November's election result "a coup". This is sans the well-documented fondness for certain strongmen who incur the displeasure of the US State Department.

There are going to be people very disappointed in Galloway's positioning, particularly those who've signed up to his "left wing alternative" to Labour. I suppose for some the red, white, and blue branding, the explicit "anti-woke" politics, and the repugnant Stalinophilia weren't warning enough. Galloway and his politics might belong to a bygone age, but the "leftist" British nationalism he's taking to its logical endpoint is not his political make up alone: it's in the genetics of Scottish Labour too. And for as long as it clings to this pitiful, declining tradition, the party is doomed.

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Saturday 27 February 2021

Dunce Cap for Dunty

I see low corporation tax rates are 2021's "tuition fees are progressive, actually." At least according to Ian Dunt, Brexit flip flopper, self-regarding sweary man, and one of the most consistently wrong people making a living from writing about politics badly. His argument? Keir Starmer's corporation tax positioning is actually good and the left should support it to stop the government returning to austerity. Having seen one rubbish defence of Starmerism, is Dunty's any better?

He argues Tory plans to put corporation tax up are the first phase for a new programme of cuts. It begins with taxes on businesses as a means of Dishy Rishi getting the public on side, and then austerity comes later - a proper one-two punch to the economy and Britain's post-Covid recovery. Apparently, (unspecified) "focus group research suggests many members of the public – including in Red Wall seats – are already starting to murmur the killer words that all this spending will have to be paid back sometime." Delivering unto business a new tax bill establishes the narrative of the requirement to balance the books, and from there?

Here's comes the killer argument. The left are enabling Tory positioning by attacking Keir Starmer. He argues the left aren't paying attention to Sunak's scheming, otherwise his nefarious plan would lie exposed and the Campaign Group would be joining Dear Keir in the no lobby. Instead its "growing hatred" of Dear Keir is becoming an identifying location, and this is blinding the left to the extent which they have changed the politics of the Labour Party. "The Labour leader, for all their attacks on him, is fighting for the principles they hold." Because Dunty was an exponent of the "any other leader" crowd, rather than take his argument at face value we should examine the evidence underpinning it. And there isn't any.

For one, while Keir Starmer has ruled out a return to austerity, framing opposition to corporation tax rises as an anti-cuts move is all Dunty's. Consider how the policy put across by the leader and Lisa Nandy during the week. Their argument was entirely Hayekian and based on the assumption lower taxes means more funds available for investment. Theoretically true, but with a dearth of profitable opportunities for capital this is just a recipe for big business to carry on banking their returns and doing nothing with it: a situation that has persisted now for almost a decade. Austerity wasn't mentioned at all. A sense this is a cunning trap was entirely absent. Instead, there is a more likely explanation even hard-of-thinking Dunt-esque types might comprehend: the "SLT" saw an opportunity to appear more pro-business than the Tories, and steamed into that space thinking it a smart political move.

And then there is the question of Tory austerity itself. In Saturday's Financial Times, Sunak makes grave faces and promises to level with the British people. Sounds bad, and it is. Corporation tax is the thin end of a wedge alright, but a wedge that sees the enforcement of tax rises across the board. Instead of a carbon copy of 2010-15, which seems to exercise Dunty's imagination more in the remembrance rather than his writerly output at the time, Boris Johnson's schemes are going to be "funded" by taking cash out of the pockets of workers. You'd think this would exercise Labour more, even if only from a wonky, semi-Keynesian multipliers standpoint, but no. Johnson has repeatedly said he's not returning to an austerity programme. His words and the government's plans are more than clear on this. Even the committed Thatcherites are ruling out cutting. No one should trust the Tories, of course, and it is very clear that for all their big statism they mean to rig it in favour of big business. There is more than one way to skin a cat, just as there are multiple strategies for restabilising British capitalism around the class interests the Tories represent.

Read the room, Dunty. If Labour aren't talking about its new flagship policy in anti-austerity terms, and if the Tories aren't about to unleash a wave of public spending cuts, then your argument is empty spin. The struggle over tax is where punitive policy is coming from, not Osborne redux, despite Sunak's ideological pedigree. Still, nice try at giving Keir Starmer's prostration before the hungry gods of capital a principled spin. But I don't think LOTO are going to be in touch about a job any time soon.

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Friday 26 February 2021

The Use and Abuse of Shamima Begum

1. Friday's court victory for the government is horrific. The Supreme Court's decision to reject her application to return to the UK to fight her case and upholding Sajid Javid's decision to strip her of UK citizenship sends a message to everyone born of migrant parents that they're here under sufferance. At any time their rights can be taken away at the flick of the Home Secretary's pen and be treated as if they're a foreign national of a country they didn't grow up in, do not know and, in all likelihood, wouldn't accept them either. Shamima Begum has been denied the right to a trial, the right to a defence, and a right for the chance at rehabilitation. And now the same shadow is cast over millions of Britons if the government of the day deems it politic to revoke their citizenship.

2. This is a reprieve for national security, so argue some dickheads. Apparently the very presence of this woman would lead to "increased risks of terrorism." There's the suggestion she's an unrepentent jihadist, that returning to Britain to stand trial would somehow embolden radical Islamists, and there's a good chance securing a conviction would be difficult thanks to the lack of evidence beyond hearsay. In other words, the UK state should wash its hands of a troublesome citizen and dump her on the Kurds because she presents too many unknowns. Talk about a lack the state has in its own legal system.

3. The politics of all this doesn't really have anything to do with the specifics of Shamima Begum. She was a useful foil who came along at the right time for the Tories to burnish their tough-on-terrorism credentials. That she was a schoolgirl effectively groomed by her recruiters doesn't matter: here we have a brown Muslim woman onto whom was poured every Islamophobic trope, every doubt about the "loyalty" of British Muslims, and every punitive cruelty the Tories and their base reserve for appropriate non-people. For Tory divide-and-rule to work, they need scapegoats. And scapegoats need their demon figures. Begum fit the bill.

4. Legal judgements are never just legal judgements. The law, especially the peculiarites of the English legal system, is class rule codified. And as the Supreme Court is an arm of the state, it is hyper conscious of this fact and how the government are minded to curb its powers following its ignorant waffling about "activist judges" - rhetoric imported directly from the United States. Having ruled against the government on prorogation and noting lower courts had recently ruled Matt Hancock's procurement practices unlawful, self-preservation dictated a certain interpretation of the law in Begum's case.

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Thursday 25 February 2021

Keir Starmer Means Business

Just look at the headline. Look at the bloody state of the headline. Yesterday at Prime Minister's Questions, Keir Starmer made plain his opposition to tax rises ahead of next week's budget. "Now is not the time for tax rises on families and businesses", he confidently asserted. He's right to a degree, working people are already paying the price for our Downing Street depression. But businesses? This raises the curious prospect of Dear Keir voting with rightwing rebels on the Tory benches against the coming budget and the Labour left ... supporting the government increasing the corporation tax rate to 25%. How do we explain this curiously discombobulating state of affairs?

Shall we begin with the official reason? This was outlined by Lisa Nandy on Politics Live Thursday lunch time. She suggested the time wasn't right for raising taxes, despite business enjoying the lowest corporation tax in the G7. She went on "this is a real concern among businesses in my constituency because they just simply can’t afford it at the moment." A straightforward managerialist observation, you might think. Corporation tax rises, which falls on all profits, isn't a good idea for business restarts as the Covid restrictions are relaxed. Seems sensible, is utterly ludicrous. To dust off jolly old Keynes, getting economies moving isn't dependent on fiddling with the tax rate but putting money in people's pockets. Boris Johnson's Tories are showing an instinctive affinity to right wing Labour's former guru just as the Starmerist front bench have rediscovered obsolescent Hayekism. What makes Lisa's positioning even worse is the fact business remains on investment strike long before the pandemic, and the neoliberal schlock forecasting an investment boom if taxes were low was debunked by the real world. In other words, the Tories now have a better position on economic growth than Labour does.

So much for the foibles of the formal politics, what about the real reason? Believe it or not, there are strategic considerations in play here. This has nothing to do with the so-called red wall voters, who our Blue Labour gurus tell us are socially conservative but economically radical. Saving Amazon tens of millions isn't about to set the 1950s-were-so-much-better-than-today Facebook groups alight. And as for winning over Tories who like small state dogmatism because it means the undeserving poor get the punitive treatment they deserve, they aren't about to find themselves converted to Starmerism off the back of opposition to tax rises three years away from a general election.

Consider Labour's record. The party has consistently offered pro-business manifestos. Even under Jeremy Corbyn. In office, Labour has never once threatened the rule of capital. Not even in 1945. In more recent years, Tony Blair, following his predecessors, marketised the public sector and offered business guaranteed markets and handed them juicy procurement and outsourcing contracts. He also helped his bourgeois friends by disassembling and disaggregating Labour's position in wider society, pushing atomisation further and making matters next to impossible for workplace collectivism. And then we had Gordon Brown, whose efforts ensured he saved capital from a 1929-style cataclysm, but as Blair's chancellor helped exacerbate the crisis tendencies that exploded in 2007-8. Yet Labour's commitment to business is always questionned, and whose past proposals for modest regulation were made to sound like the liquidation of the Kulaks. Tacking to the right of the Tories on corporation tax certainly makes these media-driven narratives harder to sustain. But even then, Labour's positioning isn't about thwarting the right wing press either.

This is about business. It is a direct message from the Labour leader to big business that they have nothing to fear from a Labour government. There won't be any experiments with economic democracy nor the enforcement of alternative forms of ownership. Labour will protect their privileges, power, and say over how the country is run, and Dear Keir's occasional mention of social security, inequality, and scrapping tuition fees won't ever place additional responsibilities on business. This is different to Blairism because we're in a different age, but preserves its explicit embrace of big capital (which, in the UK, always means commerical and finance capital). Keir Starmer has wound the Labour clock back and we find the party in the position it occupied before Ed Miliband's predators vs producers speech. Coincidentally, perhaps this pitch to business might win over a few wealthy donors now members are leaving and taking their subs elsewhere.

The reason why Labour has to continually demonstrate and protstrate its fealty to business is because fundamentally, structurally the party is an unreliable partner. It plays the Westminster game. It offered light touch regulation, stuffed contractors' mouths with PFI gold, cut social security and held wages down. Policy-wise it can be and often is as throughly bourgeois as the Tories, the Liberal Democrats and, yes, the SNP, but what makes Labour always suspect are its institutional links with the labour movement. Its class basis can never be fully integrated into capitalist realism, though this will never stop most Labour politicians (and not a few trade unionists) from trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. Underscoring this is how, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the party went from pale pink social democracy with neoliberal characteristics to an anti-austerity insurgency, resulting in a mass explosion of socialist and (shudder) communist ideas and politics. Dear Keir's rubbish sloganising is ultimately the Labour right pleading with their bourgeois betters for another chance, and their seriousness of intent is demonstrated by the recrudescence of egregious stitching, happiness to shed tens of thousands of members, the suspension of Jeremy Corbyn, and refusing to back unions on issues of major national import.

It's not going to work. With the Tories having won the framing battles of Coronavirus, which Dear Keir didn't even bother contesting, as Johnson sets out to win the future with high spending, infrastructural investment, and the (usual) promises around levelling up and sorting the regions out, Labour are stuck defending Dave and Osborne's corporate tax regime. Labour voters can always go elsewhere, or they can stay at home. And Keir Starmer, the "grown up in the room" who's serious about winning elections appears entirely fine with that.

Wednesday 24 February 2021

The Weeknd feat. Daft Punk - Starboy

Marking the end of one of the most influential dance acts ever with one of the last decade's biggest and best tunes.

Tuesday 23 February 2021

Labour's Rotten Heart

Is there something rotten at the heart of the Labour Party? Yes and, I'm afraid to say, 'twas forever thus. The latest victims of shenanigans are the three hopefuls shortlisted for Liverpool's mayoral elections. Having pulled the plug on the final selection meeting, the party today declared it was reopening applications, scrapping the all-women's shortlist, and barring the shortlisters from standing. Anna Rothery, whose candidacy had received an endorsement from Jeremy Corbyn and the backing of Unite said she would take legal action if the decision is not reversed.

In typical Labour fashion, the whole thing was handled appallingly. No explanation was forthcoming about the decision, releasing a pitiful non-statement saying the party wanted a candidate who would "stand up against the Conservatives, lead Liverpool out of the coronavirus crisis and fight for the resources that the city desperately needs." Candidates were not even informed that their bids had been given the heave ho. And so, where there is a vacuum of information speculation rushes in.

While much has been made about the politics of Anna Rothery, my first instinct wasn't a question of compatibility between her (soft left) positions and the world according to Dear Keir, but more an issue of tidying up. Given what has happened with Joe Anderson, the former mayor who resigned under a cloud of corruption allegations, there might have been a concern all of the candidates were considered too close to the ancien regime. And so while Unite has had its nose put out of joint by the suspension, so too has Unison who are normally considered reliable by LOTO. A clean break with what went before appeared to offer a good explanation. Avoid embarrassment, and put as much distance between the party and fall out from whatever happens with the Anderson case.

But, as per Skwawkbox's story, my spies in the belly of the beast back their reporting up. The overturn did not come from the top but within the regional apparatus. Less a case of hobbling the left candidate and more one of installing a favoured son of the bureaucracy, as the cancellation of the AWS attests. Anna suffered not because she was the leftist, but simply because as per Ann O'Bryne and Wendy Simon, she was in the way of someone else.

Either way, while knowing the factional details are important for the minutiae of inner party manoeuvring, the point of principle remains. Stitch ups were bad when the right did it. They were no better when the left pulled the same. And now the right are back in charge, here we are again. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Remember, when there was the merest suggestion the party's complaints system was going to abide by due process and no longer be a factional football, a certain someone made their displeasure known.

Therefore best of luck to Anna if she goes down the injunction route, but unfortunately I don't hold out much hope for success. Shabby manoeuvres are fine as long as they're consistent with the rule book and NEC rulings. Natural justice doesn't exist in the party. This serves to remind us that if Labour is to change a strategy is required to transform it from top to bottom, to enhance democratic decision making, due process, and bring the parliamentary party to heel. We had this opportunity, and the left will forever rue the day Corbynism didn't push change harder. And sadly, the task becomes more difficult as every outrage, rotten move, and terrible tactical positioning repels good people from the party. Legal challenges won't stop the right and the apparatus. And neither will giving up.

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Monday 22 February 2021

Boris Johnson's Russian Roulette

Last week we heard how Boris Johnson was resisting pressure from his backbenchers to open everything up. Had he caught a bit of caution and drawn appropriate conclusions after the third national lockdown and 120,000 dead? Not a bit of it. At his address in the Commons on Monday afternoon, we definitively learned all schools and colleges are to open on 8th March. No phased return, just home Covid tests, masks for some pupils, and the return of the fines for parents who refuse to comply. 10 million kids back school, mixing, and then returning home. Clairvoyance isn't required to forecast the result of this ridiculous big bang approach to education.

Then we have the other steps. The rule of six returns on 29th March for outdoor meeting and socialising. 12th April sees non-essential retail opening, alongside outdoor attractions, gyms and swimming pools, but the rules on social mixing still apply. 17th May sees outdoor social contact rules lifted with hospitality and hotels opening up, and finally 21st June marks the end: no more restrictions. Because, by then, Coronavirus will have respected the government's timetable and done the decent thing by disappearing. Johnson said matters would be kept under review and implementation of subsequent stages delayed if this was what the data suggested, but we know what this means: more dithering, more delaying, more nothing. How many unnecessarily died because the country was late into all three of its quarantine measures, and how many more are going to be killed by this government's indifference to the data and determination to stick by its arbitrary timetable?

It's not just about deaths or serious disease. With the old largely protected and the voter base secure, entirely coincidentally the rest of the population can take their chances until they have their jabs. Some will die, and the R number is set to ramp right up, but these are acceptable losses. And here lies the risk. Thanks to Tory recklessness which merrily left the virus to circulate in late Summer and Autumn, the even more infectious Boris variant emerged and has become the dominant version of Covid in this country. This act of careless stupidity has cost the lives of tens of thousands of people. Allowing schools and colleges back with little restriction gives infection a new lease of life and, just like last time, multiplies the chances of a harmful mutation emerging. With so much disease and millions of people not fully vaccinated, it's not difficult to imagine the emergence of a new strain that pays our Pfizers and our AstraZenecas no mind. And we're back to square one again: more restrictions, more lockdowns, more waits for a new treatment. Vaccines are essential for suppressing Covid but in the early phase of the roll out, it can't do the heavy lifting on its own. A magic bullet will not stop Johnson from playing Russian roulette with lives of tens of thousands.

Where does this reckless impulse come from? This impatience to get back to normal betrays Johnson's impestuous character and hurry to get on with his programme. But the urgency also has its roots in Tory anxieties about class relationships. Forced into the Job Retention Scheme, providing (limited) support for the self-employed, uprating Universal Credit, and suffering political damage for being beastly to the poor is not just what Toryism is about. Having successfully depoliticised the crisis and largely escaped sanction for the catastrophic failure they presided over, there is a danger of losing the post-Covid peace because of the expectations raised over the last year. The feeling we cannot carry on in the old way, the (temporary) decoupling of income from work, the importance of key workers, the huge sacrifices made by NHS staff, the life support for many businesses, the inadequacy of social security, the all-in-it-together solidarity fostered, and a mental heath crisis unlikely to disappear with the opening of the pubs are huge challenges for any government. "Johnsonism" and its talk of levelling up is only really a more Keynesian turn, with added arbitrary government interventions in the day-to-day. Is it capable of taking on the huge social challenges it faces?

No, therefore the haste to get back to normal is the hope these challenges might sort themselves out and/or not have the time to cohere around an oppositional politics. What are several tens of thousands of deaths, cases of long Covid, and the possibility of a vaccine-resistant variant against preserving a favourable political climate and returning to the balance of class forces as was before the pandemic? Mere trifles, confirmed each and every time Johnson condemns others to infection and disease.

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Sunday 21 February 2021

Late Capitalism, the Tories, and the State

In Ernest Mandel's Late Capitalism, his chapter on the state makes some interesting observations. In a quick overview of the then state-of-the-art (remember, the English edition was published in 1975), he argues Marxism has thoroughly analysed the two dominant aspects of the state. Its repressive character was explicated by the likes of Marx, Lenin, and Luxemburg, and people like Lukacs and Gramsci were responsible for theorising the state's articulation of the politics of persuasion and consent. An authoritarian state resting on force of arms only is a naked state, and not as well protected as it might think. Mandel then goes on to note a third characteristic of the state: the part it plays in the general maintenance of production. This comes in two flavours: the reproduction of the technical basis of the society, and then the social conditions (preservation of markets, the currency, wage labour, etc.). The state is also largely responsible for the training of the increasingly important intellectual labour that makes its reproductive strategies possible.

To cut a long chapter short, this third characteristic of the state has grown in importance over time. Its assumption of more social responsibility is a consequence of rising social pressures from mass democracy and the strength of labour movements, and social necessity. The provision of social security is beneficial to capital-in-general, despite efforts made by the right to force the floor lower. However, because the state does control social spending, is the first line of crisis management, and the guarantor of capitalist relations of production the owners of capital have a collective interest in its policies and strategies. Because of the separation of politics from economics, underlined by the hidden character of exploitation, the state has a certain autonomy, and the development of the state in the post-war period only saw this freedom grow more expansive. But the autonomy is only relative, which leads Mandel to ask the simple question: how adequate is it as an instrument of the bourgeois interest?

This "guarantee", which our late comrade Ed Rooksby was interested in was, for Mandel, a complex of relationships: capital's economic dominance over the state in terms of credit supply, capital mobility (and the threat of capital flight), financial relationships to the governing parties, the bourgeois backgrounds/integration argument around decision-making state personnel (the old Ralph Miliband argument), and, crucially, the overlooked behind-the-scenes relationships between politicians, the civil service, and capital.

These relationships assume greater importance in the age of liberal democracy. Mandel suggests in the 19th century legislative bodies served well for the clearing houses of competing bourgeois interests, and the limited/managed democracies of the time ensured the state's autonomy was kept within certain parameters. But the rise of labour, social democratic and later, communist parties meant parliaments grew to be dominated by issues around population management and demands from below. With this declining efficacy of official politics for determining common bourgeois interests, new axes of articulation outside of politics became more important. As, simultaneously, competition passed over into monopoly and capital concentrated into fewer and fewer handfuls of firms, the formalities of democracy were bypassed and direct relationships between the key decision makers in the state - government politicians and top civil servants - increasingly became the norm. Mandel here singles out the importance of lobbyists. These organisations, whether independent businesses in their own right or wholly-owned subsidaries of multinationals speak directly to government about their interests and offer inducements/bribes/favours to get them looked after. The revolving door between the Cabinet, boardrooms and lucrative consultancies shows this remains the case. Another avenue was the virtual fusion of offices of state with large companies. It is routine in the British system, for example, to not only have staff seconded to key politicians from big firms, but for them to fund the think tank research, input directly into policy, undertake reviews on government's behalf (a favoured tool of Margaret Thatcher's), take over functions via outsourcing, and so on. And while politicians will come and go, the permanent cadre of decision-making civil servants remain and with them the direct line to big business.

This is pretty much the common sense when it comes to Marxist approaches to the state, so what's the point of disinterring it now from Mandel's famous if, nowadays, little read book? It was this centralisation and bypassing of formal politics that interested me. Since 1975, the politics landscape has shifted. Neoliberalism was a fringe idea, though its foregrounding had been present for years, and the labour movement was, arguably, the rising power in the land. An ocean's worth of difference separates 2021 from 1975, yet the core argument offered by Mandel about the withering of official politics has remained a constant throughout this time, regardless of Prime Minister, regardless of party. Yet, since 2015, establishment politics has been in profound crisis. For an interregnum of four years, capitalist realism suffered a major defeat in the Labour Party. To all intents and purposes the Liberal Democrats were destroyed. The British state faces the real prospect of losing Scotland. Brexit won and has damaged the soft power of the state and its class on the world stage while compounding the country's economic decline, and the Tories have proven disastrously short-termist and serially, structurally incompetent. And this is without the recklessness of the May/Johnson governments on Brexit and the ticking time bomb of long-term decline.

Is there something deeper to the question of the overt authoritarian turn in Tory politics since May took over? As discussed here a fair few times, the neoliberal governments from Thatcher onwards have used the state to smash opponents to impose its normative imaginary and the insitutional relationships supporting it. This involved gutting civil society, centralised strategic governance in government and, perversely, rendered the Prime Ministerial position more vulnerable and accountable as the decision-maker in the last instance. Too many questionable decisions and failures, authority evaporates and they're done. Such has been the case of each occupant of Number 10 since Thatcher was forced from office. It stands to reason Prime Ministers since are obsessed with preserving this authority, which handily explains Boris Johnson's behaviour since entering office. Might Mandel have something to add to this?

Possibly. Given the recent crisis, the splits in capital, the dysfunctionality of the Tories, and the Corbynist reminder that Labour is always suspect from the standpoint of bourgeois interests, no matter how right wing it gets, might this have spurred more articulation of those extra-parliamentary avenues of influence along Mandel's lines? I.e. A closer reationship between offices of state and offices of CEOs? This is a question requiring further investigation. For example, is the (ostensible) roll back of NHS marketisation an application of the "what works" principle, or a power grab by Matt Hancock consistent with Tory statecraft, or is there an added layer of serving up sections of the NHS to the party's backers on an even less transparent basis than the market nonsense of the 2012 Health and Social Care Act? Additionally, in the context of Covid-19, the government's losses in the courts, and the egregiously corrupt handing out of procurement and supply contract, is this the usual cronyism or symptomatic of the bypass of formal politics? It's one thing to point out the business pushed disproportionately to Tory donors, but how many of them lobbied government and made use of informal channels. Quite a few if mates of Dom (remember him?), mates of Hancock, and other friends of friends are walking away with lucrative deals.

The evidence is anecdotal, and we'll have more once Johnson fires up his "blue Jerusalem." If we see the same arbitrary dishing out of contracts, then the answer is yes. The risk for Johnson and the Tories is by embracing and acting more on the basis of their extra-parliamentary relationships, the greater the scrutiny they attract, and the more pungency the odour of corruption acquires, a stench that might make Johnson's authority grow sickly and become vulnerable. All the more reason to attack these practices now. The questions raised by a contemporary reading of Late Capitalism in regards to the state aren't scholastic then, as interesting as some might find them. They reveal the possible contours of Tory strategy, and should allow the Labour movement time to formulate its response.

Saturday 20 February 2021

Ninja Gaiden for the Nintendo Entertainment System

A month has passed since last visiting a notorious Nintendo game, so why not another? Ninja Gaiden, or Shadow Warriors as it was known in Europe in pre-internet days is one of the most praised and feared video games in the NES library. While it never made a splash on these shores, its mix of precise gameplay, stunning sound and presentation (at least for the humble grey box) and the most punishing difficulty was legendary in North America. Its reputation secured the game an appearannce in The Wizard, a Hollywood/Nintendo tie-in to market Super Mario Bros 3 ahead of its release. Before the coming of YouTube, all I knew of Ninja Gaiden was a positive review in Mean Machines. While a canonical game over there, it was a curio over here. Thankfully, it was one of the first games I was able to score for my NES in 2011 when one of the local emporiums was basically chucking retro titles out the door on a three for two offer. My gain was, um, my gain.

The origins of Ninja Gaiden lay in a duff but, at the time, well-reviewed arcade beat 'em up called Shadow Warriors, Having had this game for the Commodore 64 it was next to impossible and an exercise in frustration thanks to crap controls and terrible collision detection. The NES iteration, like many other conversions for the system, opted to use the branding and intellectual assets but were reworked into an entirely new game. The arcade machine, apparently, was about doing battle wth a descendent of Nostradamus determined to fulfill his doomy quatrain for 1999 and raise an evil king to take over the world. A trace of this remains in the NES plot. You are Ryu Hayabusa and you are tasked with preventing a ne'er-do-well from raising a demon for world conquering/being annoying reasons. The name of this baddy? Jaquio, a play on the jacquerie evoked in Nostradamus's riddlesome prophecy. An interesting nugget of trivia, but plot actually matters in this game. One of the most celebrated aspects of Ninja Gaiden is its use of cut scenes. There are 20 minutes worth of panels and animations setting the scene and linking the action between levels to move the story along. This was virtually unheard of at the time outside of role-playing games, and conferred the game a level of narrative depth absent from any other contemporary action platformer. The famed introductory duel between Ryu's father and an unknown ninja, getting blindsided by a young woman, and seeing the baddy's castle at the end of the jungle level pull the player into and along with the game. It wasn't really until the 32-bit generation that this level of presentation became customary.

As for the game itself, most of the time it is as flawless a ninja game you could hope for. Certainly better than Shinobi on the Master System and almost on a par with the MegaDrive's The Revenge of Shinobi. Almost. There are few Nintendo games reporting for duty with controls as precise as these. And, like any ninja game, there has to be magical special abilities because ninjas. These abilities are acquired by picking up magical icons along the way, with other icons that refill the amount of times it can be used. For example, while fire is dangerous at the best of tims for Ryu a set of fireballs can surround him for a limited time, rendering him virtually invulnerable. Very handy for the numerous death runs later in the game. He can fling fireballs too, chuck shuriken, and whip out his sword and make like a whirligig of doom - all used to stunning effect by the game's community of speedrunners. The actual gameplay is very straightforward. Traverse the level from left to right, or in some cases right to left, kill baddies (a mix of thugs, soldiers, dogs, monkeys, birds(!), and an assortment of weirdies, take out the end of level boss and rinse and repeat. All the levels are well laid out. There are no opportunities for getting lost, but some properly test your platforming abilities. Clinging to walls and working out how to jump right, while assailed by birds is, um, a favourite.

And then there is the fabled difficulty. The problem is despite the bells and whistles, the flawless controls, and the hugely gratifying action the game is super hard, and it's because the developers resorted to some very cheap tricks. These include respawning enemies, placing them on narrow platforms you cannot clear in advance, getting overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of running and flying bad 'uns, having enemies come at you when you're vulnerable - like climbing walls/ladders. And some of the late bosses are very cheap as well. They all have predictable patterns, but the penultimate boss cycles through his pattern super quick. Lightning fast reflexes are required. Like a lot of NES games, getting hit knocks Ryu backwards, which means instant death if you're surrounded by bottomless pits. And last of all, die during the end of game confrontation with Jaquio and his subsequent incarnations and you're sent all the way back to the beginning of the level. This was apparently noted during playtesting and was a mistake, but they left it in anyway. Hence why the MegaDrive game edges it out in the best ninja title stakes.

Yet this did not prevent Ninja Gaiden from becoming a hit and something of a sought after cartridge, and there were two things going for it apart from its excellence (after all, not all great games are hits). First, as discussed here many times, the lone wolf action hero was neoliberal masculinity du jour in the 1980s. Forget the constraints society places on you, deal with your enemies as if rules don't matter. As a one-man army (though later, in collaboration with the US security apparatus) Ryu manly enters battle without constraints. Second, following the success of Bruce Lee in the 70s, the ninja trope was built up by film after film featuring martial arts and sprinkled with a flavouring of orientalist mystery. This framing of the East as mystical, traditional and exotic was picked up on by Japanese audiences of Western film (and media), and in turn was re-repackaged and sold back as the premises for hundreds of video games. The second was the theme of urban decay and crime fighting. Indeed, the first level sees Ryu battling with street gangs and their (literal) attack dogs. As acceptably disposable baddies when authoritarian governments in the US and UK were cracking skulls and declaring the war on drugs, the theme of fighting back against the decay, vigilante-style, was very much in the air. This was the time of the Guardian Angels and kids cartoons relentlessly pushing anti-crime populism. The zeitgeist was there and Ninja Gaiden rode it.

Then there is the overall culture of difficulty. Old farts talk about the how hard 8 and 16-bit games were versus most modern titles, but it was not a myth. Games were tougher and demanded they be played on their own terms. Yet the cheap deaths, the respawning enemies, the dreaded knock back, and the tough level of challenge were common mechanics in NES titles. Konami's Castlevania being another notable example. In this sense, Ninja Gaiden's basic unfairness was not a disadvantage as far as its reception was concerned. The meta-habitus of NES gamers had long grown accustomed to similar cheap tricks and they were accepted as part of the gaming scene, just as infinite player respawns are in most first person shooters today.

For the casual gamer is Ninja Gaiden worth a go? Absolutely. As a landmark if not a monument to difficult games, its canonical status is well deserved. And because its ludic qualities are so compelling, it is hard to put the game down. New players might overlook its unforgiving countenance and, who knows, perhaps accept the ridiculous challenge it represents.

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Friday 19 February 2021

Remembering Ed Rooksby

The awful news Ed Rooksby had passed away came as a shock. He was known as a brilliant tutor at Ruskin College and then, for too short a time, at York. I only knew Ed through his writings and the occasional Twitter exchanges, but he always came across as someone dedicated to his students, and underlined this by teaching a full semester in the Autumn while being unwell. He movingly wrote about his experience with long Covid at the beginning of this year.

Ed was serious about social theory, and understood it as a means to a political ends. He was interested in thinking through the problem of the state in Marxist theory, and in a three-part essay on Lenin's State and Revolution he subjects the text to a close reading, bringing out some of the fuzzy and metaphysical props ignored and overlooked by others. Particularly those claiming fidelity to "Leninism". Needless to say, Ed didn't think there was much there to help us with our strategic travails today.

He was also interested in the viability of structural reforms. This was different to the idea of reformism handed down to us from Rosa Luxemburg's attack on Eduard Bernstein and countless Trotskyist educationals since, but were a theoretically viable set of strategies left governments might (or, to be more exact, must) pursue if they're serious about social transformation. For example, Corbynism's transgressive quality lay in its positions on economic democracy which, unsurprisingly, are ignored by the present incumbent of the Labour leader's office. Structural reforms struck at the root of capitalist relations in ways demanding tax rises on the rich and a properly funded NHS do not. In another memorable piece for the Graun from 2011, he took apart the bilge that is Blue Labour - a piece that repays reading now this is the party's Big Idea again.

At times over this last year, Ed had mentioned he was wrestling with a book on these themes. I hope what exists of the unfinished draft becomes available in due course. In Ed, we have lost a talented comrade and a militant thinker determined to put the materialist theory of politics on a firmer footing. It falls on us to continue with the work he left - there are plenty of tantalising leads for us to pick up.

This bibliography of Ed's work put together by Jonah Wedekind is a valuable and fitting act of remembrance. My deepest condolescences to Ed's family, friends, and everyone who knew him. Sleep easy, comrade.

Thursday 18 February 2021

Burying Corbynism

Keir Starmer's economy speech then. It's fair to say it wasn't overwhelming, and few but the usual loyalists gave it a buoyant reception. The left, as you might have guessed, weren't full of praise. But neither were the centrist hacks. On this James Ball offered an infrequent insight, noting Dear Keir was acting as if he was in government not opposition, and this is fatal. A rare confluence of opinion between him and the left he affects to despise.

I'm not going to go through all the criticisms as they're ten-a-penny on Twitter. There are three aspects worth noting. The first was the eye-catching original policy (albeit half-inched from Thatcherite think tank, the Centre for Policy Studies). I.e. The Covid recovery bonds. The plan proposes to raise billions from voluntary subscriptions to go into community investment. In practice, one would assume rebuilding local infrastructure and public services gutted by Tory cuts is where this money is destined. The bonds themselves would be long maturing, and are designed to soak up the savings large numbers of (mainly middle class) people have built up over the course of the pandemic.

This might be too vague to capture the public imagination, but in principle it is a sound policy. For middle class people, there's the promise for a better return on their savings than the negligible fractional interest bank deposits currently attract, and with a preponderance of profitible opportunities for investment unlikely in the immediate future, the bond scheme might appeal to those uninterested in tying their savings up in strings-attached investment vehicles and ISAs. Second, it ties these investments into the health of the public realm and community building. In other words, it offers a secure and stable alternative to the usual form of petty middle class investment. I.e. Property. Given the political toxins our ageing cohorts of property owners have showered on us this last decade, this is designed to move the locus of material interest away from individuated petit bourgeois landlordism to building up what the centrist wonks call the foundational economy. In other words, by socialising the investment behaviour of millions the hope is they see their economic interests tied up with the general interest. Hey presto, the selfishness and scapegoating that have powered the Tories in recent decades is gradually engineered out of the voting population. Including among those who might otherwise be predisposed toward them.

I've said my positive piece, what about the rest? Offering support to business is nothing new, and comrades will recall John McDonnell often spoke of policies appealing to its better nature. As a centrist, of course Keir Starmer is going to say positive things about business. And this about sums up the tone of the pitch. This wasn't aimed at winning back leftists or, for that matter, those drifting to other parties. This was, just like the patriotism stuff, calibrated at wooing sections of small business, soft Labour/soft Tory swing voters of means, and the odd home-owning former Labour voter who went Tory in 2019. It sounded plodding and boring because the "SLT" believe this is what these people want. By avoiding public spending commitments and offering a prospectus that, at first glance, is little different to the new Tory statism, let's just say the horses are in their stables and all is calm. If the aim was to offer a vision of a better Britain to a narrow demographic, then this is exactly what Keir achieved. No one's frightened. No one's gnashing their teeth.

At the same time this is a step back from Corbynism. Indeed, it constitutes a break with it. Starmerism as a political current is virtually indistinguishable from Fabianism. This is a politics in which popular participation is entirely a matter of voting for a Labour government, and then the Keirists are left to their difficult business of introducing the right policies for everyone's betterment. As such it tends toward centralisation and authoritarianism, a point celebrated by useful idiots and dim bulbs craving preferment. On paper, when the full Starmerist programme emerges blinking into the light it's going to involve industrial activism on state's part, more investment in public services, the integration of health and social care, the abolition of tuition fees, and quite a few things you might find in Labour's last two manifestos. What, however, will be conspicuous by its absence is democratisation.

Central to the Corbynist programme was what our much-missed comrade Ed Rooksby referred to as structural reforms. Whereas Keir's policies are about making British capitalism fairer and more functional, Corbynism wanted to use the levers of the state to introduce democratic decision-making where it is anathema to capitalist relations of production: in the workplace. The discussions around and positions taken on alternative models of ownership, democratic nationalisation of the utilities and rail, and the break up and socialisation of the media were about empowering workers, of creating a toehold from which the democratisation of economics could flow and with it a fundamental challenge to capital. This radical content of Corbynism is not just absent from Starmerism, it is entirely alien to the Fabian tradition itself.

We now know a little bit more about Starmerism today than we did yesterday. It is capable of taking on new, interesting, and innovative policy ideas. But strategically, this was no departure from what we've seen up until now and was, explicitly, a divorce from the Corbynism it happily gestured to a year ago. Yes, this is better than the Tories. But so, as a general rule, are the programmes put out by the Liberal Democrats. Try as he might, he cannot avoid the issue. Keir Starmer either locates Labour in the interests of the rising generation and sticks up for its core vote, as Corbynism partially managed, or he loses. The political calculus is that simple.

Wednesday 17 February 2021

Keir Starmer's Decrepitude

Interesting discussion this evening from the Novara comrades about Keir Starmer's leadership. Whereas yesterday this place focused on a pitiful attempt at defending Keir's record as LOTO, of more interest was the blistering critique from Tom Kibasi published in the Graun. Readers might recall Tom was involved in the Corbyn project and, along with Paul Mason and Momentum's Laura Parker, a prominent left figure to make the jump from Corbynism to Starmerism. Having criticised Starmerism for its lack of vision, following recent wobbles Dear Keir himself is due to make a major speech on the economy on Thursday. Undoubtedly, this is going to attract some comment, and means tomorrow night's blog post is sorted.

In this piece, Michael and Aaron discuss Tom's critique and cover the appalling abuses of process which have come screeching back under the Labour Party's new regime. It's entirely understandable why lots of people can't stomach this crap.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

The Right Wing Defence of Starmerism

At last! A centrist defence of Keir Starmer! Taking vows of silence of late following the noted jitters and polling figures heading the wrong way, there was a gap in the market for some rightwinger to make waves penning a defence of Keir's record. Jake Richards was the man who can, and has earned plaudits from the usual suspects. As the first such piece defending actually-existing Starmerism, its arguments will find themselves echoed by continuity Blairists, Trannsylvanian columnists, and plagiarists incapable of formulating a thought of their own.

When stumping for the status quo, distorting political realities to serve political purposes is the oldest move in the book. Jake's piece is no different. To put melt water between his frozen caricature of Corbynism and the competently forensic competence of Starmerism, he has to chat a lot of shit. We're told "Jeremy Corbyn reached unrivalled lows in political polls", forgetting his Gordon Brown plumbed the same depths in 2008 and 2009. We have the condemnation for failing to deal with antisemitism, while conveniently looking the other way when active sabotage designed to do just this was uncovered, and we hear how the huge polling deficit Keir inherited was entirely down to the left and nothing about the Coronavirus crisis. This is empiricism most cynical, and then Jake has the cheek to lecture the reader about the importance of context for assessing Starmerism.

Scraping away this froth, what we're left with is small beer. Jake makes three basic arguments. The first is how Keir's "constructive opposition" is the right tone to take. "(T)he public is (sic] eager for politicians to put aside party differences in times of national crisis." This is true, but then again "the public" don't like differences per se, a point Tim Kibasi makes in his own withering critique of Starmerism. This is an example of followship, not leadership as he rightly puts it. Jake, however, chooses not to defend the Labour leader's actual record in opposition but relies instead on them there Corbynist phantasms. "Shrill pronouncements from the opposition amid a global pandemic would not sit well", he wibbles. "Starmer’s more grown-up approach to politics successfully contrasts with the years under Corbyn, who called for resignations, general elections and national strikes on what seemed like a weekly basis, and whose brand of politics often portrays all Tories as “evil” or “stupid.”" Naturally, he can't back any of this up and if challenged, he's mutter something about Corbyn supporters on Twitter. In the real world or "the context" Jake has instructed us to appreciate, Jeremy did not call for strikes, or elections, or resignations on a "weekly basis." What he did offer in the first few weeks of the outbreak was an alternative to the Tories' politics of the crisis. Its startung point was support the government where they were right, criticise them where they were wrong, and point to alternative courses of action if necessary. Hardly the politics of the sixth form student meetings ritualistically attacked at Progress bootcamp.

Here's what Corbyn said in the closing days of his leadership. He called for the government to provide decent sick pay, so workers wouldn't have to risk their health and others by going to work. He argued for an income protection scheme and a moritorium on evictions. This amounted to a five-point plan calling for a rise in sick pay, a job retention scheme that would have covered the self-employed, uprating social security, and protecting renters with help for bills for the poorest. The last piece put out by the party in his name called for a plan to be brought forward for securing PPE and expanding testing, increasing social care provision, the enforcement of social distancing, increasing support for workers, and collaborating with other world leaders in managing the pandemic. But no, according to Jake the Wise wearing the big boy pants entails keeping schtum and moaning from the sidelines about incompetence. The consequence is a repeating of history. Ed Miliband did not contest the Tory framing of the deficit and austerity, and therefore fought them at a disadvantage. Keir Starmer has refused to challenge the government's line, and so has cast himself the role of whinger-in-chief because, in the absence of political critique and, gasp, leadership, this is all that's open to him.

Jake then moves on to Brexit. Here, his assessment is right. Keir has gone from second referendumism running through him like a stick of rock to conveying Boris Johnson's deal through the Commons. And, unpopular opinion, he was on balance this was the correct call. Labour avoids the worst anti-EU attacks the Tories and their press ping Keir's way, but simultaneously it does tie his hands when it comes to the disaster the new trading rules are proving to be for many businesses. Jake suggests these powerful criticisms might come in time, but will anyone listen when millions have decided he isn't saying much worth paying attention to?

On "deCorbynisation", always the real concern of the Labour right, Jake finds much to like. Indeed, the culture of administrative opacity, kangeroo courts, and the empowering of unelected employees is back. Getting the thumbs up from his management consultants, Keir has successfully centralised power in the party apparatus, gerrymandered the NEC to gift him a majority, and has used bureaucratic feat to push out the awkwards and irreconcilables. This will certainly have consequences for the party, but nevertheless he has demonstrated a certain ruthlessness Corbynism lacked, despite the exaggerations and outright bullshit peddled by grandees and lickspittles. Antisemitism, somewhat surprisingly, is gloseed over and doesn't labour the point, unlike some. Perhaps because Jake does retain a smidgen of honesty. Afterall, our friend Peter Mandelson, once more back in favour at LOTO, let the cat out of the bag about Keir's plans in November.

Summing up, Jake notes the (declining) positive personal polling figures Keir enjoys. He does not, of course, consider why they are falling beyond the few opportunities he has to tell his story in the media. It's hard to make weather in opposition, after all. The problem is, for anyone who's even looked askance at Labour's leadership this last year, is he has no story. Keir has demanded little from the government and so has thrown away opportunities for framing key issues. Take schools for example, instead of listening to concerns, until this lockdown he was practically egging the government on to keep them open. And whatever points victories he's won were led either by Marcus Rashford or SAGE. Where he has tried, such as on tower block cladding, these unfortunately have only got picked up by the cognoscenti. Meanwhile, reviled by the mainstream and suspended from the PLP, the positions Jeremy Corbyn advocated at the beginning of the crisis have, in their own distorted way, been largely implemented by the government. His legacy has proved a more effective Leader of the Opposition than the beige blur who replaced him.

Where then does this leave Jake's defence? Well, as polemics go I've had more challenging arm wrestles with a grasshopper. Stripped of the bad faith framing, we see three "achievements" picked, described in barely any detail, a few general points about strategy any first year A-Level politics student would make, and subsequently summed up as good and right things. It's a series of demonstrably false assertions allied to banal observations, and excuted in such a way to dazzle the impoverished political imaginary of the Labour right. If this is the best they've got, no wonder they have to resort to lies, innuendo, and outright slander to get their way. Persuasion? Argument? As this piece demonstrates, they're rubbish.

Monday 15 February 2021

Populist Government and Necropolitics

For an upcoming conference on populism I've sent in this abstract. No idea if it'll get picked up. Regular readers familiar with the output of this place will know the arguments the proposal is drawing on, but the purpose of the presentation and paper is to put them on firmer foundations.

Populist Government and Necropolitics: The UK Conservative Party's Management of Europe's Worst Covid Crisis
The Conservative Party convincingly won the 2019 UK General Election because it faced a split opposition, an unpopular Labour leader, and because the party had united Leave voters behind their campaign. Boris Johnson was able to do so by mobilising classic populist tropes commonly associated with the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party, most notably opposing the democratic will of the British people to EU-friendly/remain-minded liberal elites determined to reverse Brexit. With a thin manifesto, it appeared his government were going to carry on governing in a populist vein, but then the Covid-19 pandemic hit. Johnson has since presided over the worst death toll in Europe, and yet, at the time of writing, consistently posts polling leads and has escaped censure for the calamity. This paper introduces the notion of necropolitics as developed by Mbembe (2019) in relation to the state's power over life and death issues, albeit modified from the conflict situations to which the concept was originally applied. It argues the Conservatives have escaped accountability for their Covid management because these necropolitics are imbued with populist logics of scapegoating, which are intentionally framed to depoliticise the crisis. This puts the party in a good position for reaping the political credit of the vaccine and the end to quarantine measures.

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Sunday 14 February 2021

Playing Politics with Coronavirus

The Sunday Times splashed with the leak/briefing of Johnson's coming announcement of a return to school from 8th March. So much for the epidemiological-led review scheduled for next week. The piece goes on to say the government wants children back, while most restrictions are staying in place for adults. I.e. we'll be allowed to meet people outside for a natter. This would be followed at the end of March by allowing for outdoor sports, albeit for two people only, and the rest is to be kept under review. But we're not left in the dark about the government's ambition. It wants everything to open by early May, the date by which most over 50s (the Tories' core support, coincidentally) shall bask in the relative safety of both vaccine shots.

The misnamed Common Sense Group of Tory MPs have demanded the end of all restrictions by the end of April. Basically, their "plan" was half-inched by the government, the timetable wound on by a month, and then leaked - probably by Johnson himself. Shops and hospitality should be open by Easter weekend according to the CSG, while officially we're looking at May.

Let's cut the crap. Neither Johnson nor the rebadged European Research Group are driven by "the science". From the very moment Coronavirus posed a threat to this country, the Prime Minister ducked and veered away from taking the necessary action. When he has each lockdown was inconsistently applied. The government merrily, and without being brought to book, allowed Covid to rip through the country's care homes. Not once has the government been challenged over the Do Not Resuscitate orders slapped on the disabled and people with learning difficulties. And, like a junta ran by and for the benefit of disaster capitalists, the long dark year of Covid has proven a spring time for some as printed money was shovelled into the gaping maw of private pockets. Many of whom, you'll recall, are Tory donors. Each step of the way the wage relationship, the rentier relationships, the punitive character of social security, and the Tories' own petty vendettas were prioritised before public health and their economic security.

Every time Johnson gets up at Prime Minister's Questions to accuse the Leader of the Opposition of playing politics, despite his pained (and painful) avoidance of point scoring and political criticism, this is precisely what the Tories have done from the beginning. They have taken the necropolitics of Covid-19, defined what success looks like, determined the criteria by which they should be judged, and used the full weight of policy and the media to depoliticise the crisis. Despite the late lockdowns, the premature relaxation of controls, refusal to mandate workplace closure, and encouraging 2.5 million students to circulate around the country, catching Covid, suffering with Covid, living with long Covid, or dying with Covid is a case of rotten luck or irresponsible behaviour. It's not the government's fault if you disregard their advice and head into work because the boss will sack you over Zoom otherwise.

This we all know. It should be ABC not just on the left, but common currency everywhere. What then of Johnson's plan? Again, this is driven by the politics. While the CSG want everywhere back to normal, Johnson at least has the wit to realise opening up can't happen unless most children are in school. Spare me the ritualistic paens to children's education and the damage done to them by being stuck at home. Where was this concern for wellness and mental health when the Tories stripped back schools' budgets and condemned hundreds of thousands of pupils to drafty, leaking classrooms? No, this is very much about making sure a sizeable section of the adult population are available to go back to work. Just as it was in September.

As of today, 15 million people have had one vaccine shot with only 500,000 fully vaccinated. It doesn't take a genius to realise the virus is still out there, circulating away, and will do so freely if either the CSG or government plan is followed. As the Kent variant reminds us, all it takes is one infection to spark a mutation that can lead to a more infectious and therefore more deadly disease. The more it spreads, the greater the chance - and why, thanks to the government's appalling, complacent strategy of letting it circulate last Summer, the now dominant version of the virus should carry their names. Anyone up for the Boris variant? The Sunak strain? Because it's more infectious, getting schools back and opening up businesses in the Spring means more people contract it, more suffer, and more die. Worst of all, it increases the likelihood of the infectious variant developing a vaccine resistant mutation. We've already seen these types emerge, but not with the same level of transmission. Are a few more months of restrictions with proper government support more preferable to further quanranting, vaccine resistant strains, and another wait for a new pharmacological bullet?

Once again, just like last summer, we stand on a precipice. Johnson cannot pretend no one told him a second spike would be made worse by relaxing restrictions well into the Autumn. And now, as he prepares to chance his luck in the hope vaccines will usher Covid to the margins, he isn't be listening to the science or the people putting themselves in harm's way. He knows thousands more could die, but is buoyed by the likelihood it won't be him or his.

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Saturday 13 February 2021

Scottish Labour: Vote Monica Lennon

Scotland hardly registers on Westminster's radar at the best of times, and even at the worst - such as the present life or death tussle between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond - it's something of a specialist interest. Consider then the fates of Anas Sarwar and Monica Lennon, the two hopefuls vying for Scottish Labour's crown. Most politics people in England, and in Scotland for that matter, could hardly give a hoot. Indeed, it's likely most party members south of the border don't even know there's a contest. Such is the regard of the branch office in the Labourist family. Yet what happens in Scotland is important. If the party can't claw back some support from the SNP, the path to a parliamentary majority is next to impossible. And there is another lesson Labour hasn't learned yet: how can the party convince left leaning progressive supporters to come back after crapping on their interests so long? A vital teachable moment, one might suggest, with Labour in England and Wales getting menaced and, unbeknownst to its leadership, actively disassembling its coalition. But we're getting ahead of ourselves: do either of the candidates have a novel strategy that might restore Scottish Labour?

Anas Sarwar certainly doesn't. The favourite and, apparently, the better known of the two, Anas is firmly on the old Progress wing of the party and carries the can of business-as-usual. Consider his campaign launch video. Nice production values, talks up the achievements of the last Labour government, nods to Keir Hardie, Donald Dewar, and Gordon Brown and speaks some nice platitudes about the NHS and rebuilding the country after Covid. Popping over to the campaign website, what do we find? Very little. Endorsements are the usual suspects duumvirate of Community and USDAW (joined by the GMB, who regularly enjoys their society these days), but bizarrely there are no news updates or articles or even position pieces. I know Anas wants to help disabled people, but not enough to include them in a list of pledges.

Picking through the potted biography, there isn't much to see. Some charitable work here, some NHS campaigns there. Work on Islamophobia, and his past role campaigning against independence. Naturally, the small matter of the family firm and their living wage awkwardness aren't hinted at. But what about the politics? The campaign video says he's for unity in the party and the country, and we can't refight the battles of years ago. Okay, but here is the problem. Scottish independence isn't a "years ago" issue, it is central to Scottish politics. Anas's pitch is devoid of ideas and rehashes the kind of unionist economism Ruth Davidson used to spout - we need better public services, and independence is just a distraction. Complete head-in-the-sand stuff. How, for example, does Anas bat away the argument that Brexit has fundamentally changed the prospectus on which 2014's No vote was delivered? How can he ignore the simple truth that all three Westminster party leaders lined up and made "The Vow" to concede more powers to Holyrood, only for Dave and Osborne to throw it down the memory hole hours after the result was announced?

Here is Scottish Labour's problem. As noted here time and again, the party handed over most of its core support to the SNP to keep the union together. Or, to be more precise, they forfeited vast swathes of their base by lining up with and amplifying the Tory line against independence. A shambles and a catastrophic failure no one on the Labour right has explained or been held to account for. If Scottish Labour is to have a hope in hell of coming back, it must stop confining its strategy to fighting the Tories for the declining unionist vote and, to quote his Blairist majesty, go to where the voters are.

This is why anyone who cares about Scottish Labour must support Monica Lennon. Contrary to Anas and his LOTO-based cheerleaders, she knows indyref2 cannot be ducked. Pretending it doesn't matter, or it's "divisive" won't convince anyone apart from thinly-attended CLP meetings held over Zoom. As Monica has put it during the course of the campaign, Labour should listen and not oppose a referendum if this is the majority view of the Scottish people. I mean, it's not as though Anas hasn't supported second referendums on issues for which there was no public clamour in the past. Monica's position, as it happens, is against independence, but is also against hiding behind Boris Johnson - a very encouraging sign of the combativity Scottish Labour needs. Now six years have passed since 2015's great annihilation, it's time the party tried a different tack.

In the plastic patriotism row, defenders of dear Keir have (bogusly) argued how Labour has to wave flags to get permission to be heard. The party must tap into a rarefied patriotic pride and be part of the community (consistent community organising would have done this better, but of course the dedicated unit is getting scrapped). If we take this consultant-mandated advice in good faith in England and Wales, why is London's candidate proposing doing the opposite in his patch?

This alone would be enough to justify a vote for Monica Lennon, but there are other excellent reasons. Unlike Anas, who talks a good talk about rebuilding Scotland, she provides more detailed positions on women's equality and workers' rights, and a series of shorter set-piece pledges on health, employment law, and promoting cooperative ownership. Monica's platform is more rooted in our class, and offers a solid base from which her leadership could turn heads not because her positions out-dazzle indyref2, but because by tackling it head on and standing up for Scotland's right to self-determine its future, the left-curious - a not inconsiderable number of SNP supporters - might be interested in what a renewed Scottish Labour has to say.

The ballots are now open. If Anas Sarwar wins, Labour's going nowhere but down the plughole. But if Monica Lennon gets in, the party might stand a chance.

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Friday 12 February 2021

On Labour's Poll Collapse

You've seen the poll, I've seen the poll. After some lacklustre showings of late with our YouGovs and Ipsos MORIs, Survation were waiting in the wings to drop the big one: Tories 39%, Labour 33%, down five points. What a shocker. This could prove an outlier but in the context of other polling it has a certain truthiness to it. Keir Starmer recovered the position, ran the Tories close, and now appears to be disassembling Labour's coalition again.

Panic stations? Not quite, but considering the centrist bullshit thrown at Jeremy Corbyn for not opening a double digit lead it's telling this quarter of politics are uncharacteristically quiet. Perhaps they're waiting for Andrew Rawnsley and John Rentoul to tell them what to think in this weekend's Observer and Indy. As for the jitters, they're only going to get more jittery.

Just what the bloody hell is going on? The country's political economy hasn't changed since 2016. The mole burrowing under the edifice is throwing up mounds of dirt piling up at polar opposites to one another. On the right we have the largely united coalition of voters clinging to Boris Johnson as their Brexit champion, the smiter of Coronavirus, and the maestro delivering the vaccine roll out in record time - a roll out they're the first to benefit from. The difficulties with trade are out of sight and out of mind, even if the government are quitely renegotiating some terms of the deal with the EU. And the appalling reality of 116,000 dead (more if you use the ONS measure) doesn't figure, partly because the Labour leader refuses to contest the politics of the crisis. With Nigel Farage's grift out of the picture for the time being, and parking the long-term decline of the Tory vote, the problem lies on the other side of the equation.

The Tories are united and the opposition are divided. The Liberal Democrats destroyed themselves in the Coalition years, while 2017 saw them squelched again as the Corbynist juggernaut rolled up votes from them and the Greens. In Scotland, there was no huge uptick in Labour support. Indeed, the party pulled in just 10,000 extra votes. But they fell exactly the right way to give the appearance of the start of a comeback. In 2019, the alliance forged two years earlier disintegrated. About 300,000 Labour leave votes went to the Tories (when is Keir going to apologise for his part in that one?), 1.3m to the Liberal Democrats thanks to their remainy stop-the-world-we-want-to-get-off, and another 300,000 to the Greens. Plenty have concentrated on the Labour leavers, but few have looked in-depth into why Labour lost voters to the yellows, the Greens, and the none-of-the-aboves who stayed at home.

Since taking over, Keir began putting the coalition back together. But with a huge strategic blindspot. His Mr Competence, the Tories are rubbish, the abstainia, and "constructive" non-opposition saw his new leadership squeeze the LibDems and the Greens. For some soft supporters, the nice hair, suit, and conventional-sounding politics did the trick. But for most, his success in the polls came thanks to occupying the space as the de facto anti-Tory repository. Once this trajectory was underway it was inevitable at some point Labour would catch the Conservatives, and this is where the miscalculation kicked in. With former anti-Tory Labour voters drifting back, Keir could start applying the Blue Labour/Claire Ainsley snake oil to party messaging - reaffirmed by another bunch of friendly consultants. Problem one, plastic patriotism can never work in lieu of a policy void. The public still don't know anything about Keir Starmer, so flag waving looks desperate and try hard. No one likes a pleader.

And problem two, which underlines the terrible calibre of the leader, his lackeys, and the "sensible" running dogs yapping for attention, is the complete misunderstanding of who Labour's core vote are. This is 2021, we're more than a fifth of the way into the 21st century and we've had four elections showing the party's core vote are not older workers/retired home owners. Labour should be thinking about and trying out strategies to win them over of course, but not at the expense of alienating the core vote. This was flagged up back in June, and in other recent reflections on polling how this could be helping a new green surge along. Because, as socially liberal voters, Labour's failings on spycops, disinterest and dismissal of complaints about black and anti-Muslim racism, and the crass flag nonsense gives off the sorts of culturally conservative vibes many of them find repellant. And second, while detailed policy at this point in the electoral cycle would be strange, there is no direction connecting Labour to the interests of our core voters. In other words, why vote Labour? At least the Greens take the climate crisis seriously, at least the LibDems are still (residually) anti-Brexit and are, therefore, imperfect vehicles for aspects of our core vote's interests. Under Keir Starmer, the leadership couldn't even bring itself to back teachers when they had public opinion on their side.

Here is your explanation then. The Tories are benefiting from unity on the right, while Keir Starmer is fostering disunity among the opposition to them. It's a failure of leadership against the worst government since Suez mired in the gravest crisis since the 2nd World War, which has been made more dire by Tory short-termism and recklessness. Under these relatively benign circumstances for a competent opposition, you've got to wonder what lies ahead when things get tough.

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Thursday 11 February 2021

Can Capitalism Solve its Crises?

A really interesting chat between Novara's Aaaron Bastani and Mariana Mazzucato. Wise old Marxists in the audience are bound to shake their heads at the title, but what is interesting how the arguments proposed by Mazzucato - who received plaudits for her 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State - aren't arid wonkery and technical fixes. Okay, some of her arguments do lend themselves to such an interpetation (and indeed application), such as the state providing tax breaks or match funding to crowd private investment into strategically defined objectives. Ideas, which to be fair, aren't new and lie around in dusty tomes of market socialism, but her robust defence of the public sector and assumption mass democratic participation has to intevene to stabilise capitalism's crisis tendencies opens up the possibility of its positive transcendence. In other words, why Mazzucato is regarded by some as the world's most dangerous economist is because her work is intellectually adjacent to Corbynomics. And Corbynism's abominable character resided in this popular democratic content. It pointed to the great unsaid: the antagonism between socialised (and socialising) production and the private appropriation of wealth.

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