Wednesday 31 March 2021

What I've Been Reading Recently

A full six months since we last peered through the dog eared pile of books. What's been cooking?

Persepolis Rising by James SA Corey
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford
An Analysis of Frantz Fanon's Black Skin, White Masks by Rochele Dini
An Analysis if Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth by Riley Quinn
Red Tory by Huw Lemmy
Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx
Back to Moscow by Guillermo Erades
Prometheus: The Complete Fire and Stone by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Paul Tobin
Late Capitalism by Ernest Mandel
And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey
By Light Alone by Adam Roberts

In normal times I'd get through as many books in a month, but these are not normal times. As explained last time, writing your own book doesn't leave much time for reading other people's. But on this occasion I've come to the conclusion the old pace of reading was a consequence of the pre-Covid routine. The time spent on public transport, especially the daily commute to Derby and back ensured I got plenty of stuff done. Without that it's more difficult to put the same amount of time aside for readerly pursuits of a scholarly or literary character. Now, to all intents and purposes, the book is put to bed more time frees itself as I start thinking about the next project.

What of the books listed above? Late Capitalism I intend to write about more in due course, though some of Mandel's ideas have had a brief outing recently. The Fanon books were quick guides to help with a lecture - sue me. But the two stand outs were Huw Lemmy's Red Tory and Sholokhov's masterpiece, And Quiet Flows the Don. The first is an explicitly Corbynist intervention in the field of literary production, a very funny (and filthy) satire anyone fighting in the trenches of Labour's years of internal warfare is bound to appreciate. No book has made me laugh like a drain as much as this one has for years. The other is much more serious. Finally published completely in 1940 during the period of high Stalinism, Sholokhov's epic takes us into the First World War, revolution, and civil war through the eyes of cossacks. It is much more complex than the frequent critiques of socialist realism would have you believe is possible from within the genre. Casting Red Guards as brigands who commit atrocities isn't something one would normally expect to be published with Stalin's blessing, and yet.

Coming up? Well, I've currently resumed reading the second volume of Capital, and embarked on Guy De Maupassant's Bel-Ami. Hopefully I'll get round to starting Anti-Oedious.

What have you had on the go these last six months? Have "recent events" given you more time to read?

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Tuesday 30 March 2021

Foucault and Disability

I thought this conversation between the guys at Acid Horizon and Shelley Tremain, author of Foucault and the Feminist Philosophy of Disability was really interesting. Definitely worth a listen.

I also recommend checking out their channel if, like me, you have some catching up to do on matters of social theory and philosophy. Acid Horizon also has a Patreon if you want to contribute to their project.

Monday 29 March 2021

Militant Political Science: A Study in Gossip

Plots and rumours of plots. It's against the rules to admit this, but yours truly has always liked, nay enjoyed the minutiae of the small p politics as much as the big stuff. The petty rivalries, who hates who, the unlikely connections and alliances, the shafting, the gossip. I should be better than this, but I'm not. It's grubby, but during my 11 years in the Labour Party I've relished rolling in the muck. Now work, the pandemic and, well, other work has got in the way of active participation save last Friday's four-and-a-half hour CLP meeting, Labour Party shenanigans now proceed at a remove. Not that my interests aren't piqued by circulating whispers.

Take Sunday morning's tittle tattle. We learn there's mild concern from inside the shadow cabinet that Keir Starmer is all at sea with little sense of direction. What's needed, according to our anonymous interlocutor, is the inclusion of a big figure in the shadow cabinet to make a splash and add some experience to a team viewed as somewhat underpowered by the parliamentary party. I don't know about your part of the world, but all the community Zoom meetings and Facebook groups here in Stoke are clamouring for Yvette Cooper and Hillary Benn to take up senior positions, with promotions for Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips to follow.

Accompanying this was the splash in the Sunday Times that shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds is up for the chop after the local elections. Apparently, she hasn't made enough of the spotlight or effectively communicated "the vision". Not enthusiastically banging the drum for rapist cops and stitch ups are, if anything, worth applause if you ask me. For his part Dear Keir has denied any such thing, telling the hacks on a campaign visit to Milton Keynes that "Anneliese Dodds has my confidence, she has my full confidence, she is doing a fantastic job." She's doomed.

So yes, I love the tittle-tattle and the microaggressions, but mainly because it tells us what's going on under the hood. The desire for a big figure to come and steer things, for example, shows the right of the party haven't learned a single thing since their failure to despose Gordon Brown. A Thames estuary accent, a good suit and nice hair is enough to short circuit the messy business of politics and have the punters queuing up to cast their ballots. In the case of our present shadcab, importing someone who fits this bill, like the aforementioned overrated Cooper and Benn, is a magic bullet. The dreary politics are fine, all it needs is better presentation. The obvious problem with this argument is Keir Starmer is already that man in the suit. He was sold on that basis. And his numbers are trending downwards. Perhaps those amenable to voting Labour want to see more than a brylcreemed quiff? Just a thought.

The other issue with getting a big beast in is, well the logic underpinning Keir's shadcab appointments. There was nothing stopping him from appointing a cadre of experienced has beens. It's not like Cooper would have said no if offered the shadow chancellor brief. Instead, Lisa Nandy was shuffled off to shadow foreign precisely because it's a non-job and she wouldn't upstage the boss. Ed Miliband was welcomed back because he's not about to make a pitch for taking over, and home and chancellry went to Nick Thomas-Symonds and Anneliese respectively because, and with all due respect to noth concerned, they were nobodies. Someone like Cooper has her own ideas, as awful as they are, and unlike Keir's sheeple would frequently show him up in the chamber with her tougher line in questionning.

What about the briefing against Anneliese? Again, without wanting to put her nose out of joint, her appointment was politic because, at the time, Keir was still contriving a Corbynism without Corbyn poise. Calling on the services of Rachel Reeves, who once pledged to be tougher on benefits than the Tories, was a step too far then. Now, following her rediscovery of Labour values? Perhaps. But there's more than just shuffling faces in and out of contention. The soft left, from which Anneliese is drawn, is known neither for its ruthlessness nor its coherence. Yet its constituency in the party is large. Corbynism succeeded in winning because it took the soft left with them. Starmerism won by managing the same trick. Scapegoating Anneliese for the party's structural failures, not to mention his own lacklustre leadership wouldn't do this alliance much good, and diminishes the numbers willing to stand by him when the knives come properly out. Perhaps Keir knows this, but given his self-destructive willingness to dump on the left, perhaps not.

Talking about and reporting on the gossip is bread and butter for bourgeois scribblers, and while a love for the chatter and prattle is my shame there's no reason why a militant political science shoud stand aloof from the soap operatic. Its job, when it decides to go there, is thinking through the fallings out, the arse coverings and the whispers to understand how tactics, strategies, and the alliances and interests underpinning them work themselves out in real time. It's a way of divining the divisions within leadership formations, and what difficulties they may portend. Again, not because they're jolly interesting for people watchers who like Westminster, but because socialist politics has to be alive to disagreements and gaps between our rulers in case we're in a position to take advantage of them. In this case, those muttering the sliver of worry noted here before Keir's current crop of difficulties are, for the moment, happy to cast around for scapegoats. But unless there is improvement, the right's muttering will turn to jitters, then to grumbles, and then outright sabotage and rebellion. And who then is going to stand by this most hapless of Labour leaders?

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Friday 26 March 2021

Local Council By-Elections March 2021

An unexpected surprise! A clutch of Scottish and Welsh by-elections ahead of May's Super Thursday. This month saw 44,016 votes cast over 15 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Eight council seats changed hands. For comparison with November's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Mar 20

* There were 11 by-elections in Scotland
** There were four by-elections in Wales
*** There were three Independent clashes this month
**** Others this month consisted of UKIP (31, 15, 29, 33, 26), and the Workers' Party of Britain (22)

An interesting set of by-elections in which the legend of the impervious SNP took a battering, losing four councillors to the Tories and Labour and only winning one back off the latter by way of compensation. While we're talking about Labour, I think the Scottish party are going to be quietly pleased with their performance as the month posted some of their strongest showings in quite some time. The Tories a bit less so as they dropped their gains as an Independent and Labour swooped in and took a couple of seats.

Things were also interesting at the lower end too. The Greens put in a good showing and beat the Liberal Democrats, which was fun to see. Plaid Cymru put a dent in Labour's month by nabbing a seat, and UKIP showed up to demonstrate how eviscerated a force they now are. In Argyll and Bute we witnessed the electoral debut of George "I'm voting Tory Galloway's Workers Party of Britain, probably the ugliest formation to have emerged from the far left in recent years. And they didn't do well at all. Shame.

Is that our lot until May? No, the good news is three by-elections are scheduled for April. Be still my beating heart.

4th March
North Lanarkshire UA, Fortissat, Lab gain from SNP
North Lanarkshire UA, Thorniewood, Lab gain from SNP

11th March
Highland UA, Aird and Loch Ness, Ind gain from Con
Scottish Borders UA, Leaderdale and Melrose, Con gain from SNP
West Lothian UA, Livingston South, SNP hold

18th March
Argyll and Bute UA, Isle of Bute, Ind hold
Argyll and Bute UA, Helensburgh and Lomond South, Con hold
Conwy UA, Eirias, Ind hold
Denbighshire CC, Corwen, PC hold
Glasgow UA, Baillieston, SNP gain from Lab
Glasgow UA, Partick East/Kelvindale, Lab gain from Con
Wrexham UA, Maesydre, PC gain from Lab

25th March
Gwynedd UA, Llanrug, PC hold
Midlothian UA, Midlothian East, SNP hold
Perth and Kinross, Almond and Earn, Con gain from SNP

Thursday 25 March 2021

Male Violence and Police Violence

A timely two-part discussion between Alex and the New Republic's Melissa Gira Grant and Novara's Chardine Taylor Stone. In this episode of Politics Theory Other, the conversatiom ranges over the response to the murder of Sarah Everard, the infantilising of women, and the women's struggle and the police. In particular, Melissa takes aim at what she calls 'carceral feminism', a trend that believes the police and criminal justice system can be repurposed for feminist aims. In the second part of the discussion, Chardine reflects on the Sarah Everard vigil, the tensions between the middle class Reclaim These Streets versus Sisters Uncut, and how the establishment-friendly politics of the former can stymie the emerging movement.

As always, please check out the Politics Theory Other archive and help build new left media by supporting the show.

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Wednesday 24 March 2021

Why Boris Johnson is Teflon

He musses his hair, he fluffs his lines. He presides over a corrupt and ongoing shakedown of government Covid contracts, and is responsible for the mismanagement of a pandemic to have claimed 126,000 lives on his preferred figures. This is Boris Johnson, and none of this, none of this has touched him. Routinely poor performances in the Commons don't have an effect, nor do his innumerable lies. Of all the politicians to have occupied Number 10, none have proved as untouchable as he. How do we explain this? Preternatural good fortune? Magical powers?

Paul Goodman over at Conservative Home, in passing, offers the rudiments of an explanation. And? It's all about the vaccine bounce, apparently. True enough, the Tories have enjoyed an uptick in support but putting it down to this alone is not satisfying. For starters, it's a theory (and a threadbare one at that) doing a lot of heavy lifting. Nor does not explain how Johnson and the Tories have maintained their polling position since the election. In other words, the secrets of Johnson's success resides not in the conjunctural but the underlying features of our politics.

Long-time readers know my opinion about the drivers of Tory support, but let's try putting it another way. Two important factors assisting the Tories' cruise control of the polls are the approach of the opposition to their management of the Coronavirus crisis, and the institutional power of the legacy media. I'm not going to try readers' patience with a rehash of recent criticisms of the Labour leader, but undoubtedly the failure to contest the terms of the government's pandemic strategy has left Keir Starmer with little to say. No wonder the feedback received from the focus groups find them complaining about his "carping criticisms". But it's not all on him.

The broadcast media and the press remain the powers in the land where opinion-forming is concerned, but its strength lies in conditioning and defining the framing by which older people - the core Tory vote - see the world. They disproportionately consume the editorialising of the papers, and naively accept the images and statements served up on television. An essential gullibility, incidentally, that is extended to the internet and social media. If it wasn't true, it wouldn't be allowed goes the refrain I've heard many times before. This is not a case of brainwashing or indoctrination, but a consequence of long-term dependence on a small cluster of establishment-friendly news sources about politics and, well, pretty much everything else. Why switch from what you're habituated to? Likewise, why engage the critical filters when most of their audience already agree with much of the fare pumped out to begin with? This isn't to say the media, and the right wing press, aren't uncritical of the Tories. The Sun last week put out a critical editorial having a go at the Tories for their plans to cut troop numbers. But these criticisms are safe because they come from a friendly place. The despicable but common sight of former soldiers sleeping in shop doorways has never caused the currant bun to deviate from its rasping populism and stanning for Tory politicians.

True, the media reinforce Tory support on a daily basis but this is neither foolproof nor completely totalising. For most of the Major years the press were largely on side, despite their delight in dishing the dirt about cabinet-level infidelities. This did not stop Labour from posting double-digit leads, so what's happening now has to be more involved considering the Brexit and Covid calamities besetting the country. Client journalism can only do so much. What matters are interests and how they are articulated.

The rich tend to support the Tories because the Tories tend to support the rich. The same applies for the bulk of the Tories' electoral coalition. They are seen as the better option for small business people and landlords, from the petty to the large. They protect asset prices and have shielded pensioners from their post crash programme of public sector cuts. Likewise, they're not going to pony up the costs of Brexit nor suffer the economic shock of the pandemic. The Tories don't speak the same language of class as the left does, but to its voters their rhetoric is perfectly clear. What the left have to grasp is how this appeal is both conscious, and reaches deep into the unthought and the unconscious.

As explained here many times, Tory support among the old isn't just about how they're more likely to own property, have index-inked pensions, and depend on some measure of share ownership, but to be old and retired is a qualitatively different social location from that most spent their working lives in. There's no boss, and their time is their own. The consequences of this is greater freedom, which resolves itself in pursuing one's inclinations, be it voluntary work, the bowling green, or sitting down each day with a copy of the Daily Mail and reading it cover to cover. It can also be a privatising and atomising experience with the tendency, in aggregate, for one's social universe to shrink. This constitutes a certain unmooring from responsibilities and with it a narrowing of horizons, but it also comes with a fear. This fear is of the sudden shock, or the slow undermining of their situation. If crisis befalls them, they can't readily re-enter the work force and make good any shortfall. In other words, despite being relatively secure and shielded from the world thanks to Tory commitments to maintaining their income (though not the services they are more likely to depend on), anxiety is baked into their daily bread. And this anxiety sublimates itself into a preference for authoritarian, nationalist, and often times racist politics.

Consider Brexit, for example. While it represented uncertainty and danger for the majority of the working age population, for many of the (mainly older and retired) people who backed it the terms were reversed. Europe was the source of the UK's troubles. It forced Britain to become the melting pot of languages eavesdropped in the supermarket or while wandering around town. It was coddling the country with its absurd regulations, and it meant "we" were no longer in charge of these islands. For them, Brexit was a leap from uncertainty into certainty, of a rejuvenated Britain who could build afresh and ensure everyone had and knew their place. For a substantial proportion of these voters, it promised turning the clock back to a whiter and, for them, a more certain time where one could be unapologetically British and not mind their Ps and Qs on matters of race and ethnicity, on sexism and homophobia. This was where their structurally induced angst led them, and Brexit's "successful" resolution has meant Boris Johnson made good his vow to get Brexit done was fulfilled.

And this, ultimately, is why Johnson is impervious to the political consequences of Covid-19. From his declartion of intentions in the 2019 leadership contest and ever since, he consistently appeared to subordinate everything to Brexit and ostentatiously demonstrated his seriousness by splitting his own parliamentary party, flirt with breaking the law, running on this at an election and securing the UK's exit. The people who supported Johnson know he's incompetent, an idler, and a knave. They don't care about the he-said she-said of Westminster, breaking manifesto promises, crapping on the poor and, sad to say, his responsibility for Covid's terrifying death toll. They identified Brexit with their interests, he proved himself by sorting it out to their satisfaction, and are happy to carry on backing him.

And he's delivered another promise. Who cares about the billions frittered away on procurement and test and trace? Johnson has always said the vaccines are the way out of the crisis, the the NHS's speedy roll out of the jabs are, again, proof positive of his seriousness. Experience is worth a tonne of theory, noted a grey beard in a very different context, and Johnson has, for them, delivered big on two occasions. As he talks about levelling up Britain, why would his solid bloc of 40% or so of confirmed voters doubt him? This is why "exposures" and gotchas, forensic scrutiny and point scoring, nor angry denunciation, name-calling, and lecturing Tory supporters are not going to work in and of themselves. The only strategy that can work, and 2017 showed the potential of, is building an opposition large enough to outflank, go around, and overwhelm what Johnson can put together. Criticise Johnson by all means - there's plenty of that here, for instance. But do not be puzzled, nor disheartened by the failure of them and his utterly ruinous record to connect with the millions who back him.

Monday 22 March 2021

Apologists for State Violence

Performative condemnation is everywhere. The Tories, the Labour front bench, the line is singular and uniform. It's claimed peaceful protest is sacrosanct, from a government determined to outlaw it. We see Labour politicians clapping on rioting coppers battering sit-down protesters. And, naturally, centrist Twitter pretending to have a stake in an issue they've shown scant interest in, save for likes and retweets. It's a pathetic spectacle in which oh-so principled political differences melt away and all are starkly revealed as outright apologists for state violence.

Pretty much the only sensible Westminster comment about Sunday's protest in Bristol comes from Nadia Whittome, but her nuanced and moderate take is a stand out. Nowhere do we find the establishment defenders of civil liberties. Freedom and the right to assembly must be respected. Peaceful protest is an inalienable right. That is up until the moment coppers raise their batons in anger. No quibbling, no questioning, the so-called liberal establishment gather up their condemnation and hurl it onto the bodies of protesters. They happily nod to the rhythm of every punch and every kick as the riot squad dish out the punishment to the despised outgroups, particularly the left, they'd dearly wish to rough up themselves.

The nauseating display comes after a brief period of discombobulation. Black Lives Matter have turned the spotlight on police racism in this country, and the disgusting murder of Sarah Everard brought to the fore the force's institutionalised misogyny. A point spectacularly reinforced by the police assault on her vigil just over a week ago. For the briefest of moments inbetween the Met's attack and the Tories passing the second reading of the police powers bill, cop legitimacy was openly interrogated and awkward questions were asked in polite circles. Labour were forced to do some opposition, and centrism had to pay lip service to the evidence of their senses. Bristol's police riot was their opportunity to clamp down on the uncertainty and unease, put away the second thoughts and resume enthusiastic cheerleading for the thin blue line again.

We're going to be seeing a lot of this over the coming years, if not later this summer. Mainstream politics is entering a strange kind of stasis. The Tories have their coalition of voters sewn up tight, and Keir Starmer's Labour are determined to demobilise and demotivate its support. The result is political marginalisation. Locking out the class interests of younger workers while both parties define and pander to the petit bourgeois horizons of elderly home owners is not without consequence. Before 2015, this manifested as an alienated abstention from mainstream politics - something politicians affected to care about. Once large numbers rudely intruded onto their turf they systematically drove them out again. With legitimate channels closed, the streets are open. Thanks to the Tories' efforts at criminalising mobilisation, what we are likely to see, much to the horror of current and future pearl clutchers, is a wider and deeper spread of radicalisation.

This is going to suit establishment politics for the time being. More police attacks spun as protester violence, and the vulcanism of frustrated disorder erupting against repeated provocations suits the Tories very nicely. Thanks to their cultivated generational war, they'll have little trouble convincing the support that their children and grandchildren need the smack of firm government to sort then out. But when their numbers start to dwindle, what then? Prediction is a mug's game, but it's doubtful tens of millions who've had their lives blighted by the Tory, Liberal, and Labour establishments are going to award them with a bouquet of thanks.

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Sunday 21 March 2021

Another Book Update

Look what we have here. On page eight of the new Verso catalogue. It's the book! Or, more properly, Falling Down: Parliamentary Conservatism and the Decline of Tory Britain. 304 pages, due out in September, and £18.99 hardback. If it sells well enough the paperback will come!

As it happens Falling Down has just returned from the copy editors, so guess how I'll be spending the rest of the day and chunks of my free time this week? Don't be surprised then if blogging takes a bit of a hit. Still, it's great to see the whole thing quickly becoming more real following the previous update. Thanks again to friends, comrades, readers, and frequent comment-leavers for all the support and particulates of encouragement.

Saturday 20 March 2021

The Poverty to Prison Pipeline

Threatening to rain terror down on criminals has long been a staple of the Tory offering, but behind it all is class war by other, more populist means. In this guest post Ruth Woolsey sets out the case.

Boris Johnson’s mega-prison will be ready just in time for the children Marcus Rashford has spent the last year campaigning for. It is well known that the majority of young people in prison come from impoverished backgrounds. Some have been abused and neglected by their own parents, but most families care about their loved one in prison and know their children would unlikely be in prison even if they were better off as they grew up. Faulty genes don't cause a life time scarred by crime and prison: structural inequalities do.

The children of the Tory cabinet will never know what poverty is like and will be told how they deserve their privileged positions just as their parents were. Yet, we can see that these children do not come away unscathed. The mental health problems associated with being shipped off to boarding school at a young age are expressed nicely by Tony Gammidge in Norton, Grim and I. Gammidge questions whether it is sensible having people subjected to such trauma should be running the country. As sympathetic as I am to the plight of these children, they will never go hungry and can afford therapy and have the chance to change the course of their lives. As for the lives of their poorer counterparts living on the periphery, they are unlikely to meet except perhaps in court as they hand down sentences to them.

The crimes of the poor, according to Reiman and Leighton in their 1979 classic The rich get richer and the poor get prison, are only a fraction of the harms caused by this ruling elite. When we take away how a crime was committed and look at the impacts of corporate negligence for example, even though someone may not have left their seat in their plush office in the city, thousands of people can be maimed and killed. And the people responsible are unlikely to end up in prison. A fine at worst, protected by an entourage of lawyers, accountants, politicians who pass bills which allow state and corporate violence. The poorer ‘criminals’ are an excellent distraction and are handy scapegoats for hiding the crimes of the wealthy.

How do they get away with it? For decades, thousands of writers have used Gramsci's ideas about how the state and key startegic institutions manufacture consent to the point it becomes unconscious and barely thought about. Economic individualism and neoliberal subjectivation has been pushed from the top since Thatcher assumed office 40 years ago. The public have had it drilled into them that it is up to individuals to look after themselves and their families and it is not state responsibility. Enough of the public accepted austerity being the only option to avoid further economic disaster, and so the Coalition government's tiresome benefits scroungers rhetoric went largely unchallenged. And the rich got richer.

So, the likes of Jacob Rees-Moggs must take sole responsibility for himself and his children (although nanny will obviously do that), which is easy when you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth. Not as easy for someone born into poverty and already has at least one parent working, whicih is the case for 72% of children. The difficulties of trying to work yourself out of poverty has been written extensively about, including by some who have experienced it. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is some of the biggest load of bollocks anyone can ever say, especially by rich people idling off the back of unearned income.

Parents who work long hours to make ends meet do not have enough time for their children as well as suffering physical and mental health problems associated with poverty themselves. Although every family and child is different, Joshua Dickerson’s poem Cause I ain't got a pencil paints a picture of the challenges a child in poverty has to deal with before reaching the school gates in the morning, let alone then navigating a middle class education system on arrival. Children in poverty have to do without the possessions and advantages enjoyed by their wealthier peers, or even if a school has large numbers of children in poverty they can see those who are living a very comfortable lifestyle compared to them, all of which can lead to feelings of resentment and inferiority. No wonder that children growing up in poverty are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

Children who are told if they work hard enough, they will get themselves out of poverty know this is absolute rubbish for most of them. One lad in prison for dealing drugs tod me how hard he saw his brother work to get through school and eventually graduate with a degree to end up working in McDonald's. Drug dealing is a viable option for many children finding their way out of poverty and who then get caught up in the county lines, of which the media are currently panicking about. It’s a depressingly familiar tale often leading to entry into the criminal justice system for violence. Hackney youth worker Luke Billingham and Keir Irwin-Rogers wrote in their chapter, 'Mattering and the violence in our cities' in the Urban Crisis, Urban Hopes collection that youth violence "is not about individual pathology and violent individuals, rather it is fostered by the societal structures which systematically deny marginalised people recognition, respect and resource" (2020 p.58).

Whether poor children have a parent who cares about them or the state is the parent for those in care, these are already the next generation of "criminals" because they will be criminalised for being vulnerable and poor. Their trauma, stress, and marginalisation will not be cured in prison but is exacerbated, and is clearly visible via high rates of recidivism. The cost per person in prison is significantly higher than what is spent on a child in poverty, but this befits neoliberal commonsense. It is not down to the state to provide for children, and therefore we must build more prisons instead.

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Thursday 18 March 2021

Why Labour isn't Serious about Winning

At school, fashion just wasn't my thing. Not having two ha'pennies to rub together had something to do with it. But many decades later, words pour out from these fingertips and are arranged in semi-coherent diatribes and, well, despite myself they're consistently ahead of the curve. I never asked to be a politics hipster and will forever eschew the manicured beard to match, but today we learn the Labour leader has got his excuses in ahead of May's Super Thursday, which includes the ham-fistedly stitched Hartlepool by-election. If Labour don't do good, Keir Starmer argues it's because of the vaccine bounce. As it happens, this place discussed it, or rather the myth of the vaccine bounce a fortnight ago. Just call me Nostradamus.

Let's quickly recall the argument. Have the Tories lately enjoyed a poll boost that can be attributed to a speedy vaccine roll out? Yes. But is this why Labour is doing badly? No. Having recovered Labour's position by December time to level pegging, this has disspated and gone into reverse since the beginning of the year. You can pinpoint refusing to stand by core components of Labour's voter coalition, clumsy posturing, and dumping principles to explain how Dear Keir has demobilised part of the vote. More significant in my view, particularly among Labour adjacent/soft voters is a lack of opposition. The myth of the vaccine bounce is political cover for these reversals. It's not his fault. In fact, Keir is doing a brilliant job. It's just, well, the circumstances. Funny how the sorts peddling these lines were never as forgiving and attuned to wider politics when Jeremy Corbyn was operating in tougher conditions.

This failure is rooted in the kind of project Keir Starmer and the Labour right are trying to build: a prospectus of centralised, statist managerialism, but one that is doomed because it doesn't understand the Tory party. Whether this misunderstanding is innocent or wilful, we'll come onto in a moment. But it's obvious to anyone with a passing acquaintance to Stuart Hall's work, have read a bit of Gramsci, and paid any attention whatsoever to British politics that Johnson's Tories are in for the long haul. They already have mobilised a powerful voter coalition which, thanks to its age distribution, is more likely to vote. They have a policy agenda that responds to and articulates the fears of this bloc, and they have a helpful and suppine media that allows them to set the terms of debate. Furthermore, this isn't just about winning future elections: it's a matter of strengthening the class relationships that sustain the interests the Tory party is a container for, and ensuring the post-Covid settlement departs as little from the pre-Covid settlement as possible.

There are two ways to contest a hegemonic project. It can be challenged with a counter-hegemony, or one can choose to go along with it. This is exactly what Tony Blair did upon assuming Labour's leadership in 1994. It worked for him, so why not for Keir Starmer? Consider recent evidence. The Fabian pitch is better than what the Tories have on offer, but it would be a stretch to describe it as a qualitative break. Labour also routinely abstains on key authoritarian legislation, attmepts to steal the mantle of better pro-business managers of the settlement the Tories are building, it courts and refuses to take on the media, and is intent on putting distance between itself as a party of responsible Westminster-centric politics and the efforts Corbynism made to turn the party outwards. Nowhere do we see this capitulation to the Tory hegemonic project more than in Labour's response to the Coronavirus crisis. Tailing the government, focusing on process issues, challenging only when it's deemed politically safe to do so. It's a sad state of affairs when Boris Johnson cares more about the opinion of recalcitrant backbenchers than the official opposition facing him. To all intents and purposes, Keir's feeble opposition has assisted the Tories in striking their new authoritarian settlement. And they didn't even have to offer him a peerage.

In their own way, Keir and his little helpers aren't stupid people. They have reached the top of the second party of state, after all. They can see what's in front of them. They know the arguments pinging around Labour left discourse and why the Labour leadership aren't setting politics alight. And yet they persist. The Labour right have run the party for the bulk of its history, and they've never been made accountable for Westminster defeat after Westminster defeat, so we have to ask why they do keep failing. Crap leadership is only half of it, the other is the structural predisposition of the Labour Party itself. As a proletarian party, i.e. a party set up to represent everyone who sells their time and their labour in return for a wage or salary, the middle class and professional stratas have dominated the party politically and intellectually. Their world is one of organising capital, or selling specialist services to capital, or being placed in positions that oversees and manages the hoi polloi. Their top down being conditions their top down consciousness, which is imported unmediated into the Labour Party. The workers here are a populace to be led, and the establishment a partner to negotiate terms with.

Yet this outlook is entirely congruent with mainstream Labourism as it emerged from and continues to dominate the trade unions. Class struggle since the late 19th century has, in the main, been a ceaseless guerilla struggle. At times militant and noisy, but most of the time quiet and negotiated, improvements were wrung out of the ruling class in endless battles of attrition. How this appears is not as the truth of the class antagonism at the heart of capitalist society, but presents as isolated battles against employers who are short-sighted/greedy/bloody-minded. Trade unionism therefore has to be pragmatic, flexible, and patient. And with incremental steps, every wage and salary earner has benefited from workers so organised. This consciousness informs and conditions the union officialdom that inevitably emerges, and indelibly stamped the politics of the early workers' representatives who made their way to Westminster. The plodding velocity of compromise, talking, bargaining, and leveraging (latent) collective power not only fits the constitutionalism of bourgeois democracy like a glove, those who've risen within the labour movement have imbibed an outlook not a million miles from the middle class professionals. They were organisers of workers, and in all too many cases set themselves apart from the rest. Hence why Labour emerged at the very beginning as an alliance between the progressive middle class and the growing workers' movement: there was a fundamental meeting of minds.

Why is this relevant to the Labour right and Keir Starmer's leadership? The leftist appreciation of trade union organisation is always accompanied by critique: the fact trade union officialdom has a material stake in the persistence of the wage relation in the same way professional associations maintain status through enclosure strategies. The role of trade union bureaucracies after 1945, through the Thatcher period, and well into the Blair/Brown years were, with some exceptions, as bulwarks against the left. Some still are. They struck at trends, movements, entryists, and activists who were a threat to their authority over organised labour, even if it meant dividing our movement and giving the Tories an easier time. This preoccupation is where the historic roots of the Labour right lie. Their position is thanks to the labour movement, and can only continue by keeping the lid on the labour movement. Everything else is secondary. Hence the Labour right's scorched earth and scabbing during the Corbyn years, the greater enthusiasm they have for combatting the left than the Tories, and ultimately why the only power they're serious about winning and keeping is their own in the party and the movement.

The daft strategies, the wrong politics, the fetish for focus groups, the incompetence and ineptitude, contrast this with Keir Starmer's single-minded ruthlessness inside the party. The right's will to self-preservation is the Labour Party's death instinct in full doom drive, an insatiable appetite for defeat, loss and decomposition as long as their authority and privileges persist. High office is a nice bonus if you can get it, but not the be all and end all. Hegemony shmegemony in other words. Expecting Keir and his sidekicks to be serious about winning a general election is as naive as taking compassionate conservatism at its word.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Keir and Imposing in Hartlepool

Musing on the imminent Hartlepool by-election, this website noted "Hartlepool is going to be a Labour hold provided the party does nothing daft like picking the wrong candidate and making the selection a big by-election talking point. Oh dear. The email below was leaked to the FT's Sebastian Payne and appears to be from the local party secretary to the rest of the executive. In it, the message suggests circumventing the selection process by cancelling Friday's CLP meeting and replacing it with a generic all-members gathering in which the fait accompli is presented: a shortlist of one consisting of ultra remainer Paul Williams.

There's plenty of interesting snippets in the note. This one stood out for me: "LOTO require a formal letter from us to the NEC requesting that Paul be our candidate ... We need to make absolutely clear that these arrangements are local and that, in the absence of a full selection process and the choice of a local candidate, Paul is the choice of the CLP." Say it again, LOTO require. This suggests conversations have taken place with Keir Starmer's office and they've made known what their wishes are, and how to clumsily get around the inevitable accusations of impositions and stitching.

A shame then the email has entered into the public domain. Clearly the constituency's movers and shakers learned nothing from the time Peter Mandleson's spent in the seat: never write anything down. But arrogance and stupidity on the Labour right go together like bread and butter. Therefore props to the grown ups and geniuses, from wannabe dark artists to confirmed piss artists, Labour enters the by-election with an internal row over selections. A round of applause for engineering the worst possible start.

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Tuesday 16 March 2021

Previewing the Hartlepool By-Election

Who doesn't like a parliamentary by-election, especially as a record number of days have elapsed since the last one? But Hartlepool? This will prove very interesting. A contest in a so-called red wall town is a perfect storm for all the obsessions driving the commentariat at the moment. Is another working class town going to fall to the Tories? Might Keir Starmer's Blue Labourism be vindicated on the North East's doorsteps? Might the ghost of Brexit past be laid to rest? And the government's Coronavirus record going to be affirmed, found wanting, or even treated as an issue?

Let's consider the scene. The bookies fancy the Tories' chances, and this is where the money is flowing. And superficially, their chances look good. Scanning the 2019 result, the combined Brexit Party and the Tory vote of 22,472 easily surpassed the 15,464 votes polled by Labour. As for the local borough council, its chamber is a bit of a curio. The authority is led by an Independent/Tory/Veterans' and People's Party(!?) alliance who are backed by another group of indies and, interestingly, the For Britain Movement. That's right, the Tories run the council thanks to a formal agreement they have with a fascist party. Therefore, a substantial anti-Labour vote does exist and, as we saw in Stoke, a canny use of local government can undermine support for incumbent Labour MPs. Indeed, while most of the country can look forward to big council tax rises, the Indy/Tory/Fash coalition in Hartlepool have frozen it. Lastly, the mayor of the Teesside combined authority is also a Tory and does not appear to have made any egregious missteps since his election in 2017, though looking after a regen budget sans the messy and inglorious responsibilities of the lower tier of local government can make anyone look good.

Therefore, the seat has a history of supporting the Tories in line with the wider region. The Conservatives can call upon another advantage in this by-election: the age of the voters. In 2019, we saw how ageing constituency profiles in former Labour strongholds helped the Tories. Older voters were overrepresented in these seats, older voters were disproportionately favourable toward Brexit (because reasons), and older voters are always more likely to show up (or post their votes in). The Tories certainly had all their ducks in a row. In the context of a by-election, the differential turnout by age is amplified. Second order elections like by-elections, local contests, police and crime commissioner votes, etc. do not matter to most and turnout is always lower versus a general election. The problem is, turnout drops lower among younger than it does among older groups, giving the Tories an apparent advantage.

All sewn up then? Not quite, and the clue is in the 2019 vote tallies. Consider the situation at that general election. The fevered character of debates, the sense of Brexit hanging over absolutely everything. In this crunch contest in which the Tories clearly and unambigously stood for getting Brexit done while Labour effectively promised to undo the 2016 vote did the trick for Boris Johnson, but not where the voters in Hartlepool were concerned. 10,603 of them went for the Brexit Party, significantly bringing down Labour's vote. In other words, under these circumstances thousands still couldn't bring themselves to vote Tory. With politics still polarised but less febrile and with Brexit done, the question is where do these voters go? I would hazard a guess and say most will stay home, but enough are going to return to Labour to get the party over the finishing line.

How the by-election is handled does matter. This isn't as high stakes as the Stoke Central by-election, but it is important for Keir Starmer's leadership that Labour put in a good showing. Back in January, this blog noted a barely perceptible unease working its way through the back benches and the centrist commentariat, which shortly thereafter blew up into the first squall of turbulence blowing in from established politics. Now ahead of May's super Thursday with local elections, PCC elections, Welsh and Scottish elections, and mayoral elections, outside of the left and a handful of Labour First types in the PLP's opinion he's safe even if Labour didn't do great. If, however, things haven't turned around by 2022 that's when the knives come out. This in mind, the Hartlepool by-election is unwelcome. A bad result in a seat held by Labour since the 1930s could concentrate minds more keenly, and lead to jitters and manoeuvres much earlier than planned.

The campaign, then, matters. Naturally, the NHS will be front and centre because Labour thinks hospitals and nurses are a magic bullet vote winner. It's not. The party will steer away from the disastrous economic impact of Brexit, but might talk up the horrors of the Coronavirus record including, if the party has any sense, Tory corruption and cronyism. Whatever. As long as the party is seen to oppose the Tories it can win back voters from the Brexit Party, and tie the by-election candidacy in to Hartlepool Labour's campaign priorities ahead of the district elections. In other words, a campaign rooted in local concerns is possible and can be a goer.

Candidacy matters too. According to the words of the wise around Westminster, former Stockton MP and current Cleveland PCC candidate Paul Williams is the firm favourite to take up the reins. Laura Pidcock, also from this part of the world, has been tipped too. Whoever emerges, the timetable for selection is extremely tight with longlisting and shortlisting happening Thursday/Friday with the selection over the weekend. As the lists are determined by the NEC, one can assume the leader's majority isn't about to give a popular leftwinger the nod. If Paul is the favoured candidate, there is very significant Brexit baggage there, having broken the party whip six times to vote for a second EU referendum. Depending on the campaign's dynamics, this could become an issue if trust becomes a central talking point. But if he gets the selection, turning out activists will be difficult thanks to previously gushing over Saudi Arabia following a jolly to the absolutist kingdom. Not ideal.

Looking at the lay of the land right now, I would say Hartlepool is going to be a Labour hold provided the party does nothing daft like picking the wrong candidate and making the selection a big by-election talking point. The quick timetable might signify the imminence of shenanigans, but also minimises the length of time the local press can wind the speculation clock. Labour can win by strengthening its opposition to the Tories and play to the anti-Tory instincts of residents. Forget the flag waving stuff and appeasing the Tory editorial offices. Our people want to see a party sticking up for them and their community. If Labour is seen doing so it will be rewarded accordingly.

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