Sunday, 25 April 2021

Why Political Commentary is Useless

There will be a day of reckoning for Boris Johnson's government, eventually. How much does the Graun pay for insights like this? Still, as the Observer's chief political, um, observer, Andrew Rawnsley's take on the bomb Dominic Cummings lobbed in retaliation for Downing Street's clumsy attack on him ponders the tricky question: why isn't Tory sleaze cutting through?

He notes Labour are banging the drum for all their might, but there is a feeling among the Westminster cognoscenti this isn't working. And the sense is largely correct. For honourable members on the PLP's benches, they might get a frisson of satisfaction cosplaying the golden years between Black Wednesday and May 1997 - sans the double-digit poll leads - but the assumption sleaze alone is going to turn heads is a desperate one. As Rawnsley rightly notes, the Prime Minister's laziness and what we might euphemistically call "corner cutting" is baked in. In fact, his contempt for the rules is one facet of his appeal. In case you hadn't already noticed.

What gives then? Rawnsley declares the sleaze allegations aren't shaking confidence in the government because "voters are generally more tolerant of sleaze when they are feeling good about their own lives and much less forgiving when they are miserable." Presumably, the government are going to do something wrong, their authority will avalanche, and the swing voters will swing over to the other side if enough of them don't have the feel good factor. Until then, nothing can be done. Rawnsley will keep filing copy. 1,500 words every Sunday signifying nothing.

In this article we find everything wrong with conventional political commentary. The gesture to inside knowledge, a bit of wiseacring, but at the end of it there is no new knowledge here. Rawnsley has done nothing to illuminate the workings of politics, let alone offer an explanation for the mysterious non-effects of Tory corruption on the polls. His account renders his object mysterious, unknowable, unfathomable. The complete opposite to what political commentary should do.

Getting to the bottom of the mystery isn't too difficult. Britain's political economy is badly polarised around the crucial axis of property ownership. The have nots are disproportionately young and in work. The haves are disproportionately older and mostly retired. The political consequences of this inescapable fact is nevertheless invisible to most of the political establishment and their media lackeys. All, except for Boris Johnson and Tory strategists. Because property ownership tends to atomise, individuate, and stir up a basic anxiety about its possible loss, in the absence of other institutions and affiliations their social positioning tends to encourage a preference for scapegoating, populist, and authoritarian politics. The culture war stuff, Brexit, the faux anti-elitism variously appeals to this cohort of voters while Johnson, like Dave before him, ensures they're shielded from the consequences of the Brexit mess, the Coronavirus depression, and whatever "sacrifices" have to be made in the post-pandemic era. All of this is quite deliberate. There is nothing accidental about the Tories' frequent forays into this territory.

This does not work among the young because, for one, continued Tory support by the old is purchased by making life shit for them. Johnson doesn't care that 80% of jobs lost between March 2020 and March 2021 was by the under 35s, because they're not about to vote Tory anyway. Not only have the Tories made it clear that they should pay the costs of the pandemic, Brexit, and before both their austerity programme, the young are culturally much more impervious to Tory scapegoating, racism, and divide-and-rule. Hence why in Scotland younger people are much more likely to support the SNP and, despite Keir Starmer's best efforts, Labour in England and Wales.

The fact of this division, how our apparent generation war is a consequence of the decomposition and recomposition of class relationships, and the accumulation of property by older people who entered the market when housing was much cheaper and plentiful, has to be the starting point of any analysis of politics. Understanding electoral dynamics, parties' mass support, the problems of so-called apathy, the ratings of party leaders, pretty much everything about politics since 2015 rests entirely on the extent to which the new class politics condition and shape it. That the reality of politics doesn't merit a passing thought in Rawnsley's analysis, let alone among the rest of the bourgeois press pack, should tell you how distorted, partial, and useless their commentary is.

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Fogonthetyne said...

I haven't read the Rawnsley article you discuss, mainly because I gave up on the Observer and Guardian years ago - as you rightly say, their political commentary is just a regurgitation of leaked comments from "Downing Street" sources. I think Rawnsley's golden days are well and truly over.

Phil said...

Nothing wrong with sitting down to crank out a "this is how things look, these consequences are what we might expect, and here's why they aren't happening, ably explained by me" column; you basically do it yourself in this blog post. The problem is doing this when your explanations are either vapid ("we think it hasn't happened, but perhaps it just hasn't happened yet") or tautological ("the government has continued to be popular owing to the continuing popularity of the government"). Or, in Rawnsley's case, both ("the government has continued to be popular owing to the continuing popularity of the government - but it can't last forever!").

Dialectician1 said...

You're correct about Rawnsley & the Observer. However, this morning's edition on the Graun has a good opinion piece by William Davies: 'Johnson’s Tories are reaping the rewards of an economy built on rising house prices'.

This is a useful article which looks at the correlation between the decline in the cost of labour/increasing property values & voting behaviour. Basically, it explains why the Tories need to do nothing, apart from support the 40%+ of the electorate who own assets and property (mostly the aged) and blatantly stoke-up the 'culture wars' to ensure continued electoral victory.

Davies, of course, is a jobbing sociologist not a lazy journo hanging out in the courtly circles, sniffing out gossip. Rawnsley and his ilk at the Graun/Observer spent the Corbyn years slagging off the leadership of a political party who made a brave attempt to realign this fetid political landscape.

BCFG said...

"it explains why the Tories need to do nothing, apart from support the 40%+ of the electorate who own assets and property"

That might partly, maybe, explain the last 30 years, but what about the previous 100?

"blatantly stoke-up the 'culture wars' to ensure continued electoral victory"

They are not the only ones stoking up the culture wars, most of the so called woke left do it too.

The problem with Woke is if there wasn't a problem they would have to invent one, usually with very misleading or made up statistics.

That is not to say there aren't legitimate concerns/grievances (you have to add that disclaimer because you cant discuss things these days, you have to take the right populist or left populist position).

The definition of populism: fake radicalism, fake rebellion and fake disobedience.

Populism in action:

I remember a thread on a non political site where they were claiming the mormons didn't have covid because they didn't watch tv, implying the whole thing was some kind of conspiracy, and then they got onto Trump and talked about all the stupid things he had said. And I am thinking, what more stupid than the thing you just said!

The right populists tried to push the conspiracy that covid was a plot by energy companies to keep us in our homes and use up central heating. Classic populism, use something the masses dislike (energy companies) for their nefarious ends (end lockdown and sell shit we aboslutely do not need).

Anonymous said...

Equally, you have been predicting the decline of the Tories/ the coming Left-wing electoral landslide since this blog began.

How's that going?

Phil said...

There have been no predictions of left wing landslides.

And as for the decline of the Tories, feel free to pursue some articles on here and make a case for why the processes identified aren't going to make it increasingly difficult for the Tories to win elections.

The world must be a bewildering place when you're stuck with linear thinking and simple causation. No wonder you want to remain anonymous.

Blissex said...

«"it explains why the Tories need to do nothing, apart from support the 40%+ of the electorate who own assets and property"»

What is missing here is that for a large chunks of that 40% property prices are falling or stagnant in real terms, because of dearth of jobs in the "pushed behind" areas, yet somehow the "left" cannot build a coalition with them.

«That might partly, maybe, explain the last 30 years, but what about the previous 100?»

For quite a bit of the previous 100 years voting was restricted to property owners, and so the inter-war period it was a bit down to inertia in the rural constituencies, and a bit down to property based social engineering already:
«John Ramsden has described, in an essay published by the Conservative Political Centre in 1997, the climate of opinion which developed at this time: “It was indeed at the diffusion of property that inter-war Tories aimed, as the pragmatic answer to the arrival of democracy and the challenge from Labour. There were even prophetic council house sales by local Tories in the drive to create voters with a Conservative political mentality. As a Tory councillor in Leeds defiantly told Labour opponents in 1926, ‘it is a good thing for people to buy their own houses. They turn Tory directly. We shall go on making Tories and you will be wiped out.’ There is much of the Party history of the twentieth century in that remark.”»

Regardless what matters a lot is "one button issue" constituencies, that is large blocks of voters whose depends critically on one issue, because they have a disproportionate influence in electoral politics. The two largest such blocks are "southern property prices" and "women's welfare". While people who rent and male voters are more fragmented. Politicians know that by pandering to southern owners and women they can switch large blocks of votes (also because a majority of owners are women, by way of divorce and inheritance as well as purchase...).

Anonymous said...

Amen. I much prefer to read your blog on a Sunday. The Observer is worse than the guardian, which itself isn't what I recall it being.

Anonymous said...

Heh. I guess you went into sociology to help you make sense of the world, but sociology is notoriously full of nonsense too, as you are well aware. It may well be that your predictions re the new kinds of labour, etc, etc, have merit but, judging from the many blog posts of yours I have read, your analysis appears to ignore inconvenient trends, contexts and characteristics. A certain form of conservatism may be doomed - but that does not mean it will not be replaced by something even worse.

It may be comforting to believe the collapse of the right is inevitable, but Christians say the same thing about the Kingdom of Heaven. And like any religion, you have a great get-out clause.

But you're probably right - you're too canny to speak of landslides but substitute 'left-wing landslide' for your feverish talk of 'Corbyn insurgency', and it amounts to the same thing.

I've always appreciated and admired the effort you put into this blog, and find much of what you say illuminating. The Left is a broad church and the struggle for 'progress' is a journey, not a destination (see Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao).

Sociology has its place but it is not a panacea. The Bard made an astute dig at the scientists of his own age: There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

Life IS bewildering, that's the secret of it, which is why philosophy didn't end at Hegel and science didn't end with Newton. Circumspection is advised.

Phil said...

Indeed, a certain form of conservatism is doomed and another one will come along eventually. But it will do so on a certain material basis, and different to the one the Conservative Party currently depends on and is, despite itself, progressively narrowing.

As for the Corbyn insurgency, this was a real thing. It actually existed. Which is why it's right and proper to talk about it.

The social world is complex and is bedevilled with tendencies and counter tendencies, which is what this blog analyses and makes sense of. The mono-mechanical predictions you accuse this place of peddling are entirely artefacts of your imagination.