Wednesday 30 June 2021

The Pentagon UFO File: A Quick and Dirty Sociology

Before entering the ivory tower, a constituent got in touch concerned about a flap of UFOs supposedly spotted over the skies of Stoke-on-Trent. As a conscientious public servant, yours truly penned a letter to the Ministry of Defence to ask if the top brass could shed any light on the matter. Six weeks later the reply came. They denied any knowledge, and proceeded to remind us that "it does not provide an aerial identification service for members of the public." To be honest, I was wondering what kind of official brush off we'd get and this more than delivered.

Moving to the present day, it's arguable that Donald Trump's inserting a clause into the Coronavirus Relief Bill ordering The Pentagon to report on UFO phenomenon by the end of June was the sole, pitiful positive of his brief tenure. On 25th the goods were ponied up. The report's eight pages say nothing about Roswell, cattle mutilations, grey aliens, moon bases, abductions, men in black, nor cover-ups. This would have disappointed some. After all, an absence of evidence is never evidence of absence. It's a sign of a conspiracy. But for those who reject these ridiculous assumptions, the report is nevertheless a fascinating piece of work as a research programme and a face-saving measure by the US military.

There is the subject matter. To avoid dubious associations and cultural residues of The X-Files, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena is the preferred term. This is more accurate than jolly old UFO which, with 'flying', implies a powered object moving under its own speed. Box ticked for the spinners and taxonomists. The report is also clear it is dealing with real sightings and real objects. It notes, "most of the UAP reported probably do represent physical objects given that a majority of UAP were registered across multiple sensors, to include radar, infrared, electro-optical, weapon seekers, and visual observation." The truth is definitely out there, waiting to be explained.

But what is waiting to explained? Aliens? No. The document puts forward a five-fold classification scheme by which sightings/encounters can be understood. These break into airborne clutter (drones, birds, balloons, and supermarket carrier bags), natural atmospheric phenomena (ice crystals and "thermal fluctuations" that might interfere with radar systems), US government and industry developmental programmes (i.e. experimental craft), 'foreign adversary systems' (technologies employed by foreign powers or non-state actors), and 'Other'. The last is the one for the ET enthusiasts, but the report moves to foreclose the possibility by referring to it is a holding pen for objects where data is lacking. It assumes cases can be allotted to the other categories upon further investigation.

What is interesting is watching an arm of the US state come to grips with the downright anomalous, and this leaves the release riddled with tensions and suggestive silences. For example, in a side note on the challenges for data collection it discusses the taboo pilots and other aviators face in discussing their experiences of UAPs with colleagues. This is undoubtedly reinforced by a rigid command and control structure and a super serious combat culture. Not unrelated to this then is the failure to include what should be an obvious classification of object: misidentified aircraft. This is not a flippant point, as a less excitable analysis of recent Pentagon tapes suggests at least two of the objects touted in declassified DoD footage are exactly this. Creating a false positive category and seeing it fill up with cases wouldn't do the professional image of the US Air Force and navy pilots much good. And so they will be left designated 'other', and be sure to fuel UFO chatter for years to come. Another is how the analytical focus will be on those UAPs demonstrating "breakthrough technologies". I.e. The seeming ability to defy physical laws, accelerating to near-impossible speeds, and exhibition of anti-gravity properties. Something to capture the public imagination, but would undoubtedly boil down to, again, aviators' observational error or glitches in the kit. Also not something Uncle Sam would like to shout about considering the money wasted on military spending. Leaving the gate open for paranormal speculation has the handy by-product of sparing the institutional blushes of the world's most deadly fighting machine.

For alien hunters, there's little joy to be found here. But for American politics watchers, whether homo sapiens or extra-terrestrial observers, the only close encounter in the Pentagon's report is with a clever, below-the-radar exercise in reputational management.

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Tuesday 29 June 2021

Why the Establishment Fears Keir

Things aren't looking good for Labour in the Batley and Spen by-election, and only one bit of journalism of late has gone against the depressing grain. If Labour wins, there will be a sense of narrowly dodging a bullet. If the party loses one can expect a storm of obituary notices for Keir Starmer, an unwelcome downpour his misleadership and its backers are entirely responsible for.

Readers might recall this place was among the first to note the jitters among establishment politics concerning the Labour leader. In January it was a lack of opposition and oomph that was causing concern, and because Keir hasn't so much ploughed a furrow but left a faint impression on the soil those questions have only grown louder and louder, supported by poor polling and poor election results. But now there are another set of concerns, a small but significant ripple worrying about the hapless fate of the Starmerist project and what it means for politics. This includes some Tories.

For example, in recent days Paul Goodman of Conservative Home has filed his anxieties about the Batley and Spen by-election, asking the question whether it would be better if Labour were to win than his own party. What's the deal? His fear, it seems, is a political insurgency based on "communalism". For example, George Galloway appealing to Muslim voters in the constituency on the basis of ... the ongoing occupation of Palestine. Goodman worries a Labour Party in its Starmerist decrepitude would respond in a like manner, and as far as he's concerned it has. Trying to pretend the Galloway challenge doesn't exist, Labour are putting out a leaflet (pictured) picturing Boris Johnson with Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and taking him to task for staying quiet about Kashmir as well as his notorious Islamophobia. For Goodman, this is Labour's attempt at communalist politics, which could incentivise the Tories to do the same in seats with large Indian and Indian-descended voters. Naturally, the Tories' frequent forays into the politics of racism escape our scribe's notice, let alone raise the same tone of concern.

Goodman's fretting is symptomatic of a wider mood. The by-election is advertising the Labour leadership's inability to dampen down what, from an establishment point of view, is entirely inconvenient: mass opposition to their foreign policy and the engendering of a politics that cannot be accommodated by any of the parties. And it's not just Palestine, Kashmir, and Islamophobia either. And if it's not succeeding on these issues, the party might be losing its hold on its voter's imaginations in other ways. For more times than I can count, Keir Starmer has signalled to the UK's power brokers that his business is business-as-usual. Labour in office means to tinker with a few things and pay lip service to fairness (though this has proven a bit much so far), but while a policy here and there will make life better we're not about to see transformative change. There is nothing in Starmerism, if it amounts to anything, that challenges the wage relation, the balance of power in the workplace, the saddling of millions with debt, and landlordism. His political economy is not much different from the Tories' political economy. The same people win, the same interests triumph, and the same folks bear the brunt as they do now. How ironic that the more Keir makes Labour establishment-friendly, the less use they will have for it.

The problem is, historically, Labour has to greater or lesser degrees articulated discontent while defanging it, and integrating it into a programme that speaks to a wide enough electoral coalition to win office or at least be in a position to pressure and temper the Tories. It funnels unease and refusal away from the political centres of power to be harmlessly dissipated at the ballot box, or grumbling electoral abstentionism. At least harmless from the ruling class's point of view. But it's becoming increasingly clear to them that Keir Starmer's Labour Party is incapable of doing this. The rightwingers who raised a toast to Jeremy Corbyn's suspension and cheer every time they assume control of a speedily emptying constituency party are presiding over Labour's ongoing destruction of the party, a demolition job sure to leave its electoral coalition as so much rubble. It's not difficult to see why. The Jeremy Corbyn years was in the process of forming up a a new core vote based on the rising cohort of working people. Socially liberal and at the sharp end of Tory policy before, during, and no doubt after the pandemic, a competent leader, or at least one affecting to be serious about winning elections would want to build on this core vote. But instead the leadership and their supporters have done their damnedest to drive them away. Starmerfication is Pasokification with English characteristics.

What Corbynism accomplished was build a coalition that spoke to this rising generation and, crucially, pointed it in a constitutionalist direction. Thanks to the efforts of the Labour right millions of people have had a brute education in how this goes nowhere. But it doesn't dissipate. It's taking to the streets, finding expression in other parties, and is going to be spending the next few years manifesting in ways utterly dysfunctional to if not corrosive of the establishment set up. A lot of this might have been pacified had Keir stuck to his Corbyn-lite pledges, but we're probably now beyond that point.

It's this that worries the Tories and other establishment figures who look to the longue durée. A changing permutation of the Conservative Party cannot keep a lid on the tensions and conflicts endemic to British capitalism indefinitely, and the legitimacy of the system requires a place for discontent to go. Keir Starmer is not providing that. Indeed, he seems hell bent on ensuring Labour never becomes an outlet for it. By constituting Labour as a more of a blockage than a facilitator, they will flow into projects, movements, and unforeseen challenges that raise the political temperature. In other words, it's not good for the health of the system nor the maintenance of class power if the Tories keep having things all their own way, especially as they face some uncertainty of their own. The left want rid of Keir to help build the political confidence and consciousness of out class, but increasingly and for their own self-preservation, the establishment does too.

Sunday 27 June 2021

The Affairs Within the Affair

In his resignation letter to the Prime Minister, Matt Hancock wrote "We owe it to the people who have sacrificed so much in this pandemic to be honest when we have let them down as I have done by breaching the guidance." In truth, since those images of him getting handsy with his aide Gina Coladangelo were splashed by The Sun, he was doomed. Not because of the extra-marital hanky panky, but because of the blatant hypocrisy involved. Interesting then that Boris Johnson made it clear he did not regard it a resigning matter and was case closed as far as he was concerned.

This last month's coverage of Tory doings has focused on the party's vulnerabilities. Overreach is one, attacking the base is another, and thanks to Johnson's reluctance to give Hancock the heave-ho we can add one more: a propensity to keep on "fucking hopeless" - the PM's words - ministers. Had Hancock not thrown himself out of the window, Johnson would not have avoided the damage and have left himself vulnerable to the increasingly restless lockdown sceptics on the party's backbenches. But Johnson was never going to sack him. The prattle in Westminster circles talks about Johnson's resistance to "the mob", of his reluctance of being deflected from whatever he thinks he's doing by pressures exacted by the media, popular opinion, rebellious MPs, and so on. And from the standpoint of his playing the politics game, he's right. Central to Tory statecraft is confidence in the leader, and once that has gone it is practically impossible to restore. Johnson knows this, hence he resists anything and everything that is seen to pressurise or be expected of him. The advantage, among his new supporters, is single-minded leadership and doing what he promised to do. The downside is inflexibility, rigidity, and chances of having his judgement called into question if confidence is compromised in his ministers.

But this is only a specific rigidity applying only to certain aspects of government. If Johnson's management was petrified his authority would have crumbled long ago. Hence the resurrection of Sajid Javid's career. Having dispensed with his services because he contested Johnson's authority (or more precisely that of his then proxy, Dominic Cummings), he's been brought back to mollify the backbenchers. While Hancock was broadly supportive of SAGE's take on lockdowns, Javid has been of the "we've got to live with Coronavirus" brigade since at least this time last year. But also, on this, his position takings are in full accordance with the first instinct of his boss who has made great show of his reluctance to tackle the pandemic properly. The appointment, in the first instance, is to buttress Johnson's standing.

Away from the immediate who's-in-who's-out politics, the other questions surrounding Hancock's affair are far more interesting than getting caught in flagrante. Why was Coladangelo appointed in the first place? Expertise, Hancock's special interest in her or, given that she isn't short of cash and wasn't there for the money, her own family links to firms profiting from NHS contracts? Then there are the revelations the former health secretary used a private email account to conduct government business. Everyone in politics knows using private means for communicating the juicy and the dodgy stuff is best for avoiding FOIs and select committee scrutiny. What business was conducted on them and why? Where was the oversight? And lastly, of concern to other shaggers in Tory high command, how were the images of the Hancock/Coladangelo clinch obtained?

Compared to past Tory governments, none have ever been as mired in and turned a blind eye to such levels of institutional corruption. Spread across the body of the Tory administration it is particularly concentrated in procurement arising out of the pandemic response. And, if anything, the coming restructure of the NHS beds down the opportunities for even more corruption thanks to the free hand it gives the secretary of state. In the mean time however, Hancock's departure insulates for the government from searching questions. And if corruption threatens to dynamite the Tories, the former health secretary is now at a safe enough distance for the damage to be contained. So they think.

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Saturday 26 June 2021

Quarter Two By-Election Results 2021

This quarter saw 812,867 votes were cast over 361 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison you can view Quarter One 2020 results here.

* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There were 15 by-elections in Wales
*** There were 25 contests with Independent clashes
**** Others this quarter consisted of the Andover Alliance (249), BNP (55), Christian People's Alliance (158, 80, 115), Communist Party of Britain (36, 33), Coventry Citizen's Party (194), For Britain (99, 49, 34, 12, 11, 14, 69), For the People Not the Party (88), Freedom Association (49), Heritage Party (49, 52, 45), Hart Community Campaign (1,417), Holland on Sea and Eastcliff Matters (118), Indeed (61), Independence for Scotland (14), Kingston Independent Residents Group (378, 378), Lewisham People Before Profit (303, 219, 188), Liberal (383), Official Monster Raving Loony (110, 8, 16, 12, 13, 6, 14, 8, 2, 6, 2, 3, 7, 1, 1), Propel (16, 19), Reform (40, 53, 112, 40, 35, 88, 105, 70, 89, 89, 42, 387, 7), Residents for Guildford and Villages (660, 109) Residents for Uttleford (892, 361), SDP (16, 17, 30), Rochford District Residents (788), Skegness Urban District Society (121), Tendring First (140), Taking the Initiative Party (219, 251, 100, 36), TUSC (47, 72, 32, 33, 56, 551, 58, 77, 149, 38, 30, 40, 9, 117, 34, 55, 58, 27, 345, 82, 87, 154, 111, 91, 7, 58, 40), UKIP (48, 105, 124, 19, 142, 35, 55, 384, 63, 120), Wales Needs Champions (34), We Matter Party (37), Welsh Independence Party (121) Women's Equality Party (149), Workers Party of Britain (58, 13, 21, 45), Yorkshire Party (397, 136), Young People's Alliance (52)

The second quarter's results are in! The first proper quarter since early 2020, and so eagle eyed readers might have spotted the comparators are with that and the quarter from two years ago. This will continue until this time next year when we have "normal" results to measure against.

And how are they looking? While the gap between the Conservatives and Labour is large, interestingly it's not as big as what the polls are showing. And remember, as older people are more likely to turn out for council by-elections than working age age groups the Tories have a significant advantage here. Therefore, I'd be slightly concerned if I was a Tory election wonk and mildly optimistic if the fates had delivered me to Keir Starmer's LOTO.

Anything else? The LibDems have returned to their recent historic levels of polling, but we'll see if this changes post Chesham and Amersham. The Greens are putting in a strong challenge too. At 7.6% this is the Green's best performance in a quarter since this blog has tracked by-elections, and it builds nicely on their previous best in December 2019. A slow build but they are the coming electoral force in local politics. We'll have to see if they can capitalise on this and discontent with the other parties over the rest of this year.

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Friday 25 June 2021

Local Council By-Elections June 2021

This month saw 27,508 votes votes cast over 15 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Overall, five council seats changed hands. For comparison with May's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Feb 20

*There were two by-elections in Scotland
**The was one by-election in Wales
***There were two Independent clashes in June
**** Others this month consisted on Independence for Scotland (14), Reform (7), and TUSC (40)

The two main parties far out in the lead, but both their votes are squeezed by strong performances elsewhere. One might expect the Liberal Democrats to turn something of a corner at the local level following their Chesham and Amersham performance, and indeed they did. After losing to the Tories badly in Aberdeenshire last week, they pull one back from Labour in Chichester. Annoyingly the Tories continue to do well, gaining another councillor and topping the poll (as usual), but the matter most of interest is the surging Green vote. Without looking at the archive of results I'm pretty sure June was their best by-election performance in raw vote terms, and the first time they've secured third place under "normal" circumstances. And they come out with an extra councillor too. If only someone had been forecasting this for quiet a while ...

Can the Greens hang on to these numbers, or is it a one off? It's tempting to put it down to the rough and tumble of local politics, but with a Labour leadership determined to shed its base the Green vote can only go up.

NB The comparator has been changed from March 2020 to February 2020, which was the last full pre-pandemic month of elections.

10th June
Waltham Forest LBC, Grove Green, Lab hold
Waltham Forest LBC, Lea Bridge, Lab hold

17th June
Aberdeenshire UA, East Garioch, Con gain from LDem
Kent CC, Elham Valley, Con hold
Mid Devon DC, Upper Culm, Con hold
Norfolk CC, Sewell, Lab hold
Norwich DC, Sewell, Grn gain from Lab
Somerset West and Taunton DC, Old Cleeve and District, LDem hold
Tandridge DC, Fellbridge, Ind gain from Con

24th June
Chichester DC, Chichester East, LDem gain from Lab
Gwynedd UA, Harlech, PC gain from Ind
North Lanarkshire, Murdostoun, Ind hold
Rugby BC, Wolvey and Shilton, Con hold
Somerset West and Taunton DC, North Curry and Ruishton, LDem hold
Swindon BC, Priory Vale, Con gain from Ind

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Thursday 24 June 2021

Keir Starmer's Cowardice: Another Exhibit

There are many things to despise in politics, and cowardice stands out as one of the worst. John Pring of the Disability News Service has scooped comments from shadow leader of the commons, Thangam Debbonaire, telling participants at a compositing meeting for women's Labour conference that the party was opposed to introducing free adult social care. Apparently, it would "give the Tories a stick to beat Labour with." It would cost over £100bn and be more expensive than the NHS. Readers with inconveniences like memory will remember that free care was one of Keir Starmer's campaign pledges, and is, formally at least, party policy. But not any more. The party is now without a policy on a crucial, strategic issue, making Keir and the shadow cabinet look like they're running scared in case the Tories say something nasty about them, and dumping a policy that helped the leader get elected. It's a challenge to find the words to describe abject cowardice of this kind.

Every hour is amateur hour in the leader's office, and it's fitting the arrival of Matthew Doyle, who used to hang coats for Tony Blair, is greeted by policy triangulation doomed to put all corners of the electorate off equally. Consider what an open goal adult social care is. Cut to ribbons by the Tories in the 2010s, they were belatedly forced to recognise the damage they had done, from 2015 they allowed local authorities to add a precept on council tax to pay for the mess. Surely it won't have escaped Keir's notice that the Tories are potentially courting difficulty considering how Boris Johnson has put off another meeting to address a problem he pledged to sort out once and for all. The opportunity is positively cavernous, inviting Labour to do something.

This is more than a chance at scoring points. It offers a rare moment for driving a wedge between Johnson and key layers of his support. Over the last couple of years, we've seen how the thin gruel of Brexit and 128,000 people dead thanks to the Tories putting certain interests before public health has not shifted their coalition. Casting our minds back a little further, the electoral performance of recent years suggests two things could help them come unstuck: the abandonment of Brexit by the Tories, confirmed by their worst ever election results in the 2019 EU elections, and their performance in the general election Keir's "SLT" pretends never happened. Not 2019, of course, but 2017. Recalling the result, what was a key contributing factor to the outcome? Theresa May's bungled dementia tax, in which the Treasury was poised to shake down pensioners' estates for everything over £100,000 if they had availed themselves of the care system. As older people are more likely to own property and therefore not a few of them are, on paper, worth over £100k, the prospect of their children's inheritance getting soaked for care costs was not a happy one, and it helped depress the Tory vote just enough to deny May her majority. In other words, as very clever people scratch their heads and can't work out why millions are still supporting the Tories, at last here is something that could damage them. You could even put a bow on it ... and Labour sits on its hands.

Where does this moral vacuity and strategic decrepitude on adult social care fit into so-called "Starmerism"? There is some consistency between this and previous policy moves, and typifies Keir's novel approach to fight or flight in politics. Forgiving the misnomer, on "fighting" the leader is prepared to make political weather only if his attack on the Tories is from the right. Attacking Tory corporation tax rises, criticising Johnny Mercer's sacking for trying to prevent soldiers from facing war crimes charges, telling the government he expected pupils to be back in schools while Coronavirus was infecting thousands every week, and posing as more patriotic than the Tories, it's a pitiful scene. And the voters think so too, with those Tories clinging to them like a limpet, or voting anyone but Labour when the occasion for a protest arises. And there is flight, or what we might accurately call the absence of leadership. Seemingly afraid of a social democratic let alone a left wing shadow, Keir Starmer has failed to support causes that have fallen into Labour's lap and play to the party's strengths, only supporting them if someone else had done the running beforehand. Marcus Rashford and free school meals. Gareth Southgate and racist footy fans. If there's no one providing popular cover, or worse, the wrong sorts of people, then Keir Starmer affects a studied silence and pretend to be above it all.

Adult social care fits into the flight category. The worst, most flat-footed opportunist British politics has seen since Iain Duncan Smith ran the Tories, Keir is simply saying nothing until the Tories present their care plan, whenever that will be, and then he'll criticise them. Assuming he's in it to win it, which is by no means clear, Keir's got to think that somehow his tedious accountants' act at Prime Minister's Questions is going to cut through where nothing has before. It's probably going to be much worse than that and can see it now; when Johnson unveils his scheme Labour will attack it for being too expensive.

Labour is an unavoidable arena of political struggle in British politics, particularly in England and Wales. Occasionally, episodically it's an arena of organisation, a positive vehicle for pressing the claims of social movements and our class. But as Keir Starmer has forcefully reminded us in his wasted year of stupid, incompetent leadership, most of the time it is a barrier and one we must push against. It takes a special sort of genius to ignore funding adult social care, an issue on which the Tories are uniquely vulnerable, and by doing so undermining one's own credibility as a Prime Minister in waiting.

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Wednesday 23 June 2021

The Clumsy Promotion of British Nationalism

I've heard this abomination. Thousands of kids have had to sing it. And now it's your turn.

Like many people, I'm prone to ear worms. Those songs that stick in your brain and will not be shaken loose. It's not bad when it's something decent, but for the last two days this ostentatiously patriotic piffle, which all schoolchildren are officially being encouraged to sing on 25th June by the Department for Education, has proven an absolute torture.

Forget the silly Nazi Germany/Hitler Youth hyperbole peddled by more excitable types, One Britain One Nation is the official song of the One Britain One Nation campaign whose explicit aim is to develop a civic national identity similar in character to the 'official' nationalism of the SNP. Comrades fulminating against stormtroopers might want to reflect a bit deeply on the material proferred. Look at the video, it's very multi-culty with dozens of children from black and minority ethnicity backgrounds. Think about the happy clappy lyrics wedded to the trite incantations of our unitied unified nation in unity: not exactly Deutschland über Alles. Check out the guy behind it, Kash Singh. A former copper, he won plaudits for his softly-softly community-based approach to policing in the wake of the Bradford riots. Is it likely the kinds of people booing at footy players taking the knee and exercised by the imaginary evils of the scapegoat-of-the-hour are going to see this video and welcome it? Doubtful. It will be dismissed as lefty crap as far as they're concerned.

Like the Gareth Southgate open letter, Singh's efforts sit in a recent tradition Boris Johnson's government are groping toward: the rebranding of British national identity undertaken by New Labour. Fortuitously for Tony Blair New Labour coincided with several movements, or moments, in British culture: a new wave of guitar rock, the exploding British R+B and club scenes, Brit art, city centres made safe for gentrification, the early internet, and decisive shifts in popular culture toward anti-racism, LGBTQ acceptance, and the bedding down of gains from the second wave of feminist struggle. Blair, as a relatively youthful leader and fresh face, rode the cultural wave of what he self-consciously branded a "young country". He talked about change and modernisation, and with a tired and broken Tory party in office the Blair of the 1990s and, arguably, up until the Iraq War looked the part for enough people.

But it was not enough to serve as an adjunct to it, the desires the moment unlocked had to be harnessed, and Blair did so in a superficial overhaul of how the British state operated. A parliament for Scotland, devolution for Wales, Northern Ireland, and London, and repositioning the monarchy following Princess Diana's death were all of a piece. Central to this was a new official anti-racism. Everyone had a place in Britain regardless of their ethnicity or religion, everyone had the right to equal opportunities and fairness, and the only people on the outside were those who eschewed "British values". Into this hat fell fascists, racists, travellers (of course), and following the September 11th attacks, jihadists and Islamists. One of the leftist critiques of the early New Labour years pointed out this top-down multiculturalism did not foster inclusivity: it effectuated division, allowed for a new beggar-thy-neighbour politics on the basis of communities competing for resources and representation in local government, quangos, public services, social and council housing, and government itself - all in the name of liberal tolerance.

20 years down the line, what was officially promoted is embedded in the everyday production of social life. Social liberalism is the spontaneous common sense of most people, and outright bigotry a minority view. It's understandable how the Tories, this most chameleon of political formations, are adapting themselves to it. Their war on woke puts them on the wrong side of history, and the more intelligent and far sighted Tories know it. Including, despite indulging the odd racism himself, the Prime Minister.

That said, while One Britain One Nation isn't a Tory front, it is curiously out of time and out of joint. Aside from football, British patriotism for most is a modest, unshowy thing. Contrary to what some think, flag waving is not a popular pastime in the red wall or anywhere else. State-mandated displays of national celebrations come to nought, such as the street parties the government encourages us to hold whenever a royal marries, a new sprog is born, or when the Queen reaches another milestone in her reign (looking forward to the Platinum Jubilee next year?). And likewise, so will this song and the hype around it - especially now it has government backing. In all likelihood, some kids will have memories to cringe to for decades to come but at best most parents and people won't notice it, and those who do will see it as tacky and fake. Inventing and pushing nationhood and national identity has to be subtle and worked at, it can't be mandated or condensed into a setpiece event. Whether it's called Our Britain Our Nation day or not.

Monday 21 June 2021

Previewing Batley and Spen

Will George Galloway's intervention in the Batley and Spen by-election spell doom for Labour? One would hope not, but with Labour support crumbling even in seats Keir Starmer is supposed to appeal to it's not looking good. The scale of the problem can be glimpsed via this excellent video from Owen Jones. Well worth watching.

Sunday 20 June 2021

Evaporating Labour

The unexpected loss for the Tories in the Chesham and Amersham by-election was bad, and shows up the cracks inching their way across the bloc of voters Boris Johnson assembled in 2019. But, as many have noted, Labour's polling was appalling. At 622 votes, or 1.9% of votes cast this is the worst by-election result in its history and one of the weakest performances ever by one of the three main parties in England. A case of Labour voters getting savvy, determining a Liberal Democrat is preferable to another Tory MP upholding this corrupt government and putting their nose pegs on? Or something else?

According to Paula Surridge, what happened on Thursday was a partial detachment of remain/liberal-minded Tory voters from the Johnson coalition. The key factor here was Jeremy Corbyn, or to be more accurate his absence. This layer voted Tory in 2010, supported Dave again in 2015, May in 2017, and Johnson in 2019 because Labour scared them. This was undoubtedly the case when Corbyn was leader, but we should not pretend it's anything unique to the Corbyn period like Surridge does: they responded to the Tory frighteners just as well when Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband were in the chair. Then there is the Brexit factor or, again, its absence. Tory remainers ranged from not being excited by to opposing the prospect of a second referendum. Johnson promised to get on with it, and wanting to move on plenty of remain-minded voters supported him on this basis. Just ask the Liberal Democrats. Now Brexit has happened and the consequences become clearer, the ideological glue sticking this slice of conditional Tory support to their coalition has grown weaker. With the result many were happy to give the LibDems a go in the by-election.

What has this got to do with Labour? Speaking to C4 News, Surridge said one shouldn't read too much into Labour's result, which saw the vote fold by more than 90% on 2019. It's merely a result of tactical voting. Indeed, she went as far to say it was potentially good news for the party because those former Tory voters now feel free to move between Labour and the LibDems. We'll see if there's any evidence for this in Batley and Spen.

I'm not convinced for a couple of reasons. Taking a trip down memory lane, one of the supposed appeals of Keir Starmer was his assumed traction among the southern shire counties. Impeccable hair, suit, countenance, he would be a better salesman for Corbyn-lite policies in such places. Keir is tailor-made for seats like this. Yet the first opportunity voters were asked directly about the Labour leader and where he's taking the party, against the trend of the swing to Labour in the south in the elections just gone, the vote evaporated. Paula is right, there was tactical voting, but if it's the main explainer for Labour's vote disappearing, it has never been seen on this scale before. Was there something unique about the seat? No. And if Paula is right about the scale, why did the Greens' (historically smaller) vote hold up better? Are Labour supporters more disposed to lending their votes and Green voters hard bitten and sectarian? Obviously not.

There is an alternative explanation, and something the PolProfs tend to forget. All demographics are distributed across all seats in the UK. There is unevenness in the concentrations of age, ethnicities, and strata, but everyone is everywhere. A banal observation, but consider Labour's new core for example. It populates the big cities and gave its Labour MPs supermajorities, but they also inhabit Chesham and Amersham, as well as Batley and Spen and Hartlepool. With Labour set on abandoning their interests and distancing itself from their support's outlook, that will provoke a negative reaction wherever they are found. Hence the danger of bleeding votes to the LibDems and Greens, and as Keir Starmer has turned on the party's base, as forecast it's fraying. It stands to reason that in Chesham and Amersham, the story of Labour's collapse was tactical voting and protest voting against the leadership's disastrous strategy.

The question is whether they can be won back, and the answer to that is highly unlikely. With the leader's office concerned only with ostentatiously trumpeting its opposition to the Tories from the right, briefing about how swathes of its support is antisemitic, and signalling how uninterested it is in providing an opposition let alone winning office, carrying on like this there won't be a Labour Party left. Labour politics are rapidly boiling down to a choice between opposing fates: either Keir and the bulk of the right go, or Starmerfication does for the party. There is no middle way.

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Friday 18 June 2021

After the Chesham & Amersham By-Election

When the unexpected happens, hottakes rush into the interpretative vacuum. The victory of the Liberal Democrats in overturning the Tories' 16,000 vote majority has occasioned a flotilla of opinion. Stephen Bush said its significance was of no significance, and there is nothing that can be read into it. Paula Surridge suggested all the Tory voters stayed home because the combined LibDem/Labour vote was roughly the same in 2021 as it was in 2019, and so a case of tactical switching was happening. And others point to the seat's characteristics: HS2 is due to go through the constituency without any discernible benefit for residents, this is a remain voting seat ill-disposed to Brexit grandstanding, the LibDems have been working the seat hard, the punters are fed up, or, perhaps the most incredulous, southern voters are fed up hearing how bad the north has it.

There's some grain of truth in all of them. Yes, even the last one. We know Boris Johnson is taking elements of his electoral coalition for granted. We know local grumbles over things like HS2 are electoral bromides for governments in by-elections where decisions from remote Westminsterland are imposed on locals. And ye, it was a seat ripe for the plucking for the Liberal Democrats. They are a party skilled in opportunism and slippery politics. A one off, then? Nothing to be seen here? Not so fast. Enjoying his moment, when Ed Davey took his orange hammer to break the flimsy blue wall built for this afternoon's photo op, he was right to note the Tories are, in the main, more vulnerable to LibDem than Labour assaults. This has been starkly clear since after the 2015 election when they started picking up council by-election seats disproportionately from the Tories. It was a measure of their cluelessness that Tim Farron and Jo Swinson swallowed the anti-Corbyn demonology and thought pickings were easier from disaffected Labour supporters than the actual evidence of electoral performance. To Davey's credit, on assuming his party's leadership he penned a piece suggesting he'd passed this most basic of comprehension tests.

But was it a case the Tories lost the seat as opposed to the LibDem's winning it? If we accept the Surridge thesis that the Tory voters all stayed at home and the anti-Tory bloc got its act together (for once), then there's nothing for Johnson and co to concern themselves with. It can be put down to a mid-term protest and one that means little as it'll bounce back at the general election. This, typical of the empiricism customary to political science, misses a lot of complexity. As explained many times here before, one of the peculiarities of our age-divided (class cohort and property-divided) politics is how older people are more likely to vote at election time. In second order elections like by-elections this is even more the case. Turn out generally goes down, but the propensity to sort out the postal ballot or turn up at the polling station for working age and younger voters decreases at a much faster rate than the over 60s. Given the propensity for older voters to support the Tories, we are left with two possible outcomes. Either older and retired folk broke with the established patterns of second order elections and stayed at home in greater numbers than younger punters, or they turned out as normal and a good chunk switched their preferences for this contest. I know which one is more likely.

This does present the Tories a problem. From the experience of UKIP and the Brexit Party, we know how these helped loosen the fealties of older Labour voters and opened the way for Tory voting, among other things. If more by-elections occur in the so-called blue wall (or deep blue sea, considering their geographic domination of England), and with the LibDems primed for these sorts of seats, there is a happy danger of a chain reaction unfolding, of momentum building on momentum, and breaking habitual Tory voters from their habitual voting patterns.

But is there wider significance? Contrary to Stephen Bush's argument, I believe there is. It plays out differently (in England) depending on the seat, and that is anti-political establishment protest. Between 2012 and 2015 with the LibDems in government, UKIP became the protest party of choice. It didn't win, except on the occasions of Douglas Carswell's and Mark Reckless's defections and subsequent by-elections, but came second in practically every contest after the Eastleigh contest. They served as the repository of angry brigade voting whether the defending party were the Tories, Labour, or LibDems. These dynamics so conducive to a populist politics haven't gone away, and our most recent contests - Hartlepool and Chesham and Amersham - affirm them. In Hartlepool Labour selected the worst possible candidate in a seat lousy with resentment at being taken for granted. As perverse as it may seem, the Tories were perceived as the best possible protest vehicle for giving an uncaring Labour Party a bloody nose. Hence the much worse result than even 2019 under Jeremy Corbyn. The LibDems opportunistically exploited HS2 grumbles (the party is formally supportive) and the diffuse discontent in Chesham and Amersham, and reaped the reward.

What this also suggests is future parliamentary by-elections are likely to repeat this pattern: a reaction against whoever is seen as 'the establishment' in any given seat. Fortune then is doing anything but smiling on Labour's chances in Batley and Spen. With Keir Starmer announcing on Thursday that Labour is spending the next 18 months determining what its policy is going to be, the party has little to nothing to say except the Tories are bad. Hardly a prospectus to see off a populist challenge, let alone power insurgencies in places like Wakefield (which may become vacant) where the party came second 18 months ago. The Tory and George Galloway's challenges are tapping into the anti-establishment dynamic in the seat, making a comfortable Labour hold the least likely outcome.

For almost a decade parliamentary by-elections in England have seen the populist dynamic deliver upsets and seemingly bewildering results. It's astonishing the combined wit of professional politics, the commentariat, and the wise sages of political science have yet to cotton on.

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