Thursday, 30 September 2021

What I've Been Reading Recently

Six months have passed since I last did one of these. And before that it was six months as well. Ho hum. Here's the handful of titles I've got through since March.

Capital Volume 2 by Karl Marx
Bel-Ami by Guy De Maupassant
Anti-Oedipus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality by Imogen Tyler
Orfeo by Richard Powers
Feminism, Interrupted by Lola Olufemi
The Age of Empire by Eric Hobsbawm
A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
Tangled Up in Blue by Rowenna Davis
Imaginary Relations by Michael Sprinker

I can pin the lack of bookage on the abandonment of the old commuting routine (cheers Covid), but some weighty tomes re responsible for soaking up dozens upon dozens of hours. In his commentary on Marx's second volume, Engels lamented the lack of agitational material in its pages despite its importance and position in the analysis of capital. He wasn't wrong. Marx was a witty and acerbic writer gifted with a talent for phrase making, but most of that doesn't get a look-in here. This isn't to say the second volume is a hard book - it's certainly no harder than the first. But the lack of flourishes do make it something of a joyless experience.

Even weightier were the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. I've never encountered two books so hard to pin down. There's just so much in them both I could only ever write about them in fragmentary ways. I found Anti-Oedipus more fun as it fizzes with the delight of two thinkers sparking off one another and who were happy to ride the rocket wherever it ended up. Its critique of psychoanalysis is utterly devastating, and despite the difficulties of the vocabulary (which is largely, but not entirely discarded in the second book) it made for a superb, exhilarating read. Like Virilio, but weightier, and with more explosions. A Thousand Plateaus is undoubtedly an advance, and is probably the heaviest thing I've ever read. Its 596 pages are densely packed and it does not let up, with each page pregnant with potential research projects and further elaboration. ATP is more difficult to talk about than Anti-Oedipus, except to say it's indispensable. Be that as it may, I do have a bone to pick with D+G and legions of their friendly commentators.

In their advice on reading the book, they argue it is composed of a series of plateaus arranged rhizomatically. The reader can dip in at any point, then jump to any point - provided the conclusion is read last. This latter commandment is certainly justified: the concluding section is a super condensed version of the preceding breeze block, but arriving there first and working backwards disrupts the potentiality for new lines of flight that come with encountering the concepts and diagrammatic expressions. However, the utility of a randomised first reading is somewhat overstated. They might have aspired to a philosophical anticipation of Choose Your Own Adventure books, but ATP conforms to the normative expectations of linear reading. I.e. Concepts introduced early on are later developed, while those hinted at and gestured toward get their elaboration in due course. Arguments unfold in an A-to-B fashion, and each chapter (which are substantial enough to be stand alone books) ends with the customary summarising paragraphs. This is just as well because a real commitment to rhizomatic (dis)ordering would have made this supremely challenging read even more of an effort. And I must confess, ATP is not just an exhaustive book, but an exhausting one. I produced 60-odd pages worth of notes from working through it, and often it left me with little energy to put fingers to keys to bash out a piece for this here site. And even then I'm not convinced I'd have got as much out of it if I hadn't spent time reading the secondary literature. The contents of these books are going to take a long time to digest, so expect them to crop up from time to time for as long as this blog lasts.

Recommended reads is Imogen Tyler's book, which I used for a summer student reading group. Frequently a tough read because of the horrors its pages describes, Stigma is a superb critique, update, and supersession of Erving Goffman's famous book of the same name. Also recommended is Lola Olufemi's introduction to contemporary feminism. It will be the core text on my gender and sexuality class in the new year because of its stress on decolonisation, intersectionality, class, and critique of white feminism. And because it's good. And Imaginary Relations deserves a shout out for its considered treatment of Althusser on the development of a materialist theory of aesthetics. Michael Sprinker notes the trouble the specificity of aesthetic practice posed those locating it as practices steeped in ideology. Does acknowledging its peculiar character concede ground to bourgeois conceptions of art, with its nonsense about auras, and the individuated brilliance of great artists? It doesn't have to (indeed, Deleuze and Guattari discuss this (with different vocab, obvs) in What is Philosophy?), and Sprinker argues Althusser's scattered remarks on matters artistic point toward a materialist theory of aesthetics. Indeed, thinking about this well over 30 years later it seems obvious that Bourdieu's work has provided the most compelling framework that fits the bill. Quite what Althusser made of him would be interesting to know.

Bringing this post to its end, one book I've read three times this year is missing from the list. And that is my own Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain. There's little more I need say about this, except buy it.

What have you been reading?

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Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Fetishising Tough Leadership

The hacks and the careerists loved it. Keir Starmer's ponderous conference speech didn't say a great deal while he said a lot. The "witty" off-the-shelf put downs for hecklers, and the laboured looms and tools flourish aren't that interesting and are chip shop wrappings by the time you read this. What was was the calamitous character of the conference, a fate that might have been avoided if Starmer hadn't tried bouncing the party into factionally convenient rule changes. The question is why pass up an opportunity to make political hay, especially when the Tories are beset by food shortages, fuel shortages, and their National Insurance increase. Dereliction of oppositional duty?

Yes. But one doesn't have to go too far to arrive at an explanation for this seemingly stupid course of action, especially when Starmer himself laid out his view at the weekend on Andrew Marr. Challenged on his decision to turn inward, he justified himself with the usual cliches: electability, showing the party had changed, yadda yadda. Peter Mandelson put it more plainly. By taking on his party, millions of voters would cheer him on, said our Labour Friend of Jeffrey Epstein. Self-serving rubbish, but is there any provenance? The obvious example is a trip down the memory lane of Blairist mythology. Neil Kinnock's assaults on Militant and the municipal left in the 1980s were necessary to show Labour was electable - though it didn't help his chances when 1987 and 1992 swung around. And then King Tony himself. He publicly picked a fight with the left over the wording of Clause IV and centralised command and control in the leader's office and, apparently, the public lapped it up. Never mind that double digit leads were routine before these "necessary" changes were made.

It would be a mistake to put this intentional misremembering of the past entirely down to the Labour right's illusio - there are two examples from recent political history that, to their minds, demonstrates the importance of ostentatiously tough leadership. Exhibit A is Boris Johnson. Elected in the summer of 2019 and faced with an unruly, divided parliamentary party, he simply threw caution to the wind when it came to taking his challengers on. He understood the only Tory route to electoral victory was by uniting the Leave vote behind him with the promise to get Brexit done. Johnson ruthlessly and in the most showy way possible had to demonstrate how this most untrustworthy of politicians could be trusted with seeing through the referendum result. The theatrics of dying in a ditch rather than revoking Article 50, of closing parliament, saying he would defy the law, sacking Tory grandees. Johnson proved his seriousness of intent and was awarded, while the opposition fragmented and lost voters to the Tories. Decisive leadership on this one question while liberals and remainers tut-tutted through the spectacle won him the big prize.

Exhibit B? Why, it's Jeremy Corbyn. Unfortunately, a negative example. While his leadership of the Labour Party was different to his predecessors, his authority - and why he inspired so many - was moral authority. He exemplified a set of ideas and interests, and so this was a leadership born of consensus. It was also proved fundamentally incompatible with the rotten party bureaucracy and the culture of entitlement among his parliamentary colleagues. There were opportunities to wield the axe through the judicious application of discipline, conference votes, and expulsions but they weren't taken precisely because of Corbyn's adherence to pacifistic, consensual politics. The result saw the Labour right running riot through the organisation, undermining the party in the most scabby and scorched earth ways possible. And the public did notice. Part of the popular antipathy toward Corbyn was precisely this inability to get a handle on his organisation. If he can't unify and lead the Labour Party, how could he be expected to competently manage the country?

The belief is grabbing one's party by the scruff of its neck demonstrates leadership - a trial run, if you like. The Labour right, however, have stripped this entirely of context and made it a precondition of all leaderships forever more. In Starmer's case, it's unlikely squeaking through his change to how MPs gate keep the next leader would have impressed anyone. Ditto putting on the record his opposition to a £15/hour minimum wage. The reason Starmer's standing is poor has to do with his failure to show any kind of political leadership these last 18 months. In his speech, he talked about the horrors visited on Britain's care homes early in the pandemic. A disgusting, appalling scandal he said nothing about at the time. He discussed the failures of Tory pandemic management, while he in turned pulled his punches and refused to challenge Johnson on the fundamentals. Starmer's opposition is proving ineffective and goes unnoticed by those who only look at politics askance because he's done no opposing. The idea Mandelson's "millions of voters" are going to suddenly take notice of Starmer's prioritising of inner party wrangling when Starmer hasn't bothered addressing their concerns and interests is wishful thinking.

Is Starmer going to enjoy a post-conference bump or a dip? In the end, it doesn't matter. His first proper party conference has announced to the world that he's on course to lose the next general election. Only a set of unforeseen circumstances, somehow more spectacular and/or devastating than anything we've seen this last 18 months could possibly turn his fortunes around.

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Monday, 27 September 2021

On the Starmerist Manifesto

According to the Fabians, Keir Starmer's essay was downloaded tens of thousands of times. Out of them, I wonder how many will languish in folders on flash drives, never to be opened let alone read. Deservedly so, many might say. All the charges about it being vacuous are right, but what it isn't is pointless. Recalling the build up to the piece, this was trailed as a 15,000 word statement of beliefs for the benefit of Labour Party members. As the intended audience, I can only imagine the unambitiously wonkish and the most limited political imaginations would find something here worth getting their teeth into. But then again, as with so many of Keir Starmer's "accomplishments", the intended audience are the gatekeepers and mouthpieces of capital's interests. And there isn't much here that would worry most of the vested interests Starmer has gone out of his way to court.

But is there more to it than that? Yes, if you happen to be interested in the lineage of Starmerism, its trajectory, and where this jerry-rigged sack of platitudes are likely to end up. As political credos go, this is as much thin gruel than anything Ed Miliband and Tony Blair served up, but it is suggestive of a certain mindset, of habits of mind and inclinations we've seen play out during the last 18 months and we're going to see in office on the off chance Keir Starmer becomes Prime Minister.

There are a few good things here. There is an outline of an extension of workers' rights in the first 100 days (p.23), which would be the first substantive enhancement of collective workplace powers since the 1970s. The measures promised come nowhere near the mark of the Corbyn era, but it's not a lapse back to 2010-2015 which, despite exhibiting more of an overt concern with equality, never had much to say on building up trade union strength. The green new deal is in there without using those form of words, but without much in the way of detail. And, most interestingly, what the essay does get right is the importance of security. Longtime readers might recall this was a major bee in this blog's bonnet during its detour (and therefore, mine) into soft left decency. Again, Corbynism took it up and dinstinguished itself by addressing the interests of the the rising class of workers. Starmerism steps back from this and, in the moments it affects to be interested in winning elections, is set on building a different voter coalition with large swathes of former Tory voters and without the millions who supported Labour during its last two outings.

Recognising the problem of security doesn't necessarily mean one has the right solutions, and Starmerism certainly doesn't. Genuflecting towards the problems faced by younger workers will get lost in the noise when the emphasis is on appealing to the insecurities of older cohorts of voters using Tory themes. Instead of talking about interests, we resort to recycled anti-crime populism of the Blair years, and getting more police on the street (another unacknowledged borrowing from Corbynism). In other words, make people feel secure at home in the knowledge the state is out there giving ne'er do wells a good hiding - a classic Tory ruse.

The other string to the Starmerist bow is the bastardised strand of Blue Labour running through it. Starmer doesn't quite evoke images of Spitfires and old maids cycling through the mist, but there's a lot about patriotism, values, and place. All classic themes and, if one was feeling generous, might out this down as an oversteer to counteract the media's confection of Corbyn's Labour as being anti-British. This is the lead in to his big wheeze, the "contribution society" in which everyone knows their place and does their bit. In the context of emerging from lockdown, he writes,
They want to see a contribution society: one where people who work hard and play by the rules can expect to get something back, where you can expect fair pay for fair work, where we capture the spirit that saw us through the worst ravages of the pandemic and celebrate the idea of community and society; where we understand that we are stronger together. (p.22)
Making the world less scary is a noble political endeavour, but doing so by mixing patriotic homilies with a revived "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" strapline and being beastly toward designated outgroups isn't going to win converts over when the next Tory election campaign, just like the last one, heavily runs these lines. The best way of cutting across this support is an appeal to interests, and this is where Starmerism mangles Blue Labour. While it is socially conservative and has an embarrassing reverence for institutions that have kept our class down, at least as Maurice Glasman originally articulated it, its conservatism extended not just to the preservation of working class identities, but its community institutions and tradition of (often militant) self-activity. The kinds of thing that would make a manager like Starmer nervous, such as protests, strike action, occupations, etc. And for a decade before he came to prominence, Glasman did his bit encouraging community organising alongside what became Citizens UK (a model that deserves its own critique, some other time). Starmer's Blue Labourism evacuates this stuff. He even pays no mind to Labour authorities who do value place and locality through their community wealth building efforts, because factionalism. For him, the sense of belonging is secured administratively, a unity - and your contributions - enforced from above.

And this brings us back to where we've been before mapping out the contours of Starmerism. It was fitting the Fabian Society published his pamphlet, because this fits entirely in their tradition. Enlightened managers know best, progressive social change is something that is done to people, there's no role for politics outside of parliament except for vote catching activity, and absolutely central - the thrust of his critique of the Tories - is the need to restore popular trust in the state after it has been frittered away by the Tories. Restoring trust in state institutions is fair enough as political projects go. It's certainly not my politics. But the objective is a non-starter when a leadership, Starmerism, systematically undermines trust in and talks down the institution - the Labour Party - that is supposed to restore this trust.

At one of the Labour fringes, John McDonnell quipped how this was supposed to be a 15,000 word essay and supposed the 2,500 missing words contained all the politics. A good line, but all the politics are there to see in its 30 short pages. It's not a politics for winning an election, nor a prospectus set on firing up millions of voters. It's a summation of Starmerism so far, an elitist boss-knows-best outlook, married to a list of vague sounding policies and aspirations designed to keep Labourist politics in this managerial mould. It might be better than the Tories, but when they're busy letting tens of thousand get ill and hundreds die of Covid every week, these days that's a very low bar.

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Friday, 24 September 2021

Neoliberalising the Shadow Cabinet

The Labour Party is home to many dubious traditions. Stitch ups. Contempt for members. Leadership incompetence on the eve of conference. But another that often sails below the radar are the chummy, if not outright corrupt relationships between wealthy people, corporations, and Labour Party politicians. For the favoured, they can expect donations of tens of thousands each year to contribute toward "office costs". In the majority of cases this money doesn't ingress into the politicians' pockets and bank accounts, but is used to hire in more people, upgrade the office space, or pay for huge drops of very glossy leaflets. Often, this comes with no strings attached. But the understanding is there: lobby for their interests at local level, push against national-level policy moves that might harm their industry, etc.

Then comes the next layer: leading shadow ministers find themselves in receipt of the largesse of certain commercial behemoths. In addition to their one or two Westminster people and spad, outfits like KPMG and Serco have a history of seconding staff to their offices. And this "charity" pays itself back many times over: the genesis of nuts and bolts policy lie not in the political imagination or wonkish inclinations of shadow ministers, but in the schemes favoured and often pushed by their spads. A donation of a corporate employee brings a business's influence to bear directly to the policy formation process. Much of this practice was jacked in under Jeremy Corbyn, but was rife in the Ed Miiband years.

And now, we read, the process is about to go one step further. Last year, Labour received £6.5m in short money to fund its parliamentary business, including £850k for the Leader's office. A tidy sum, to be sure. But with 26 shadow cabinet members, seven more senior positions with attendance rights, and a layer of bag-carrying MPs beneath them, it's very easy to see how staffing costs can spiral. Especially if one is set on paying spad rates. This isn't a problem when Labour is relatively flush with cash as the party can (and did) stump up money to support parliamentary operations, but even without a cash crisis under Ed Miliband the gaps were plugged with generous donations from accountancy firms and public sector outsourcers. And now, there is a financial blackhole thanks to the membership collapse, withdrawal of union donations, and the leadership's money mismanagement, shadow ministers are competing for corporate sponsorship.

According to HuffPo, party cutbacks means less money for specialist staff. Isntead we have the spectacle of Wes Streeting and David Lammy raising large sums for their disposal. This could be spent to enhance their offices, or squirrelled away for a future leadership contest. But either way, it's setting the scene for a thorough neoliberalisation of the shadow cabinet. While this pair are sitting pretty, also swimming in outside cash are Rachel Reeves, Jess Phillips, and, outside the top body, Yvette Cooper and Dan Jarvis. In the game of politics, they now have extra resources to make themselves particularly effective, at least in the eyes of other Labour MPs, while, comparatively speaking, those not flush with support are going to have to get by with reduced teams. To highlight the absurdity of the situation, Streeting had potentially greater resources to meet his schools brief than his former boss, shadow education secretary Kate Green.

This situation is entirely consistent with Keir Starmer's managed democracy. The shadcab are not only disciplined by collective responsibility, political advancement is now tied to attracting "investment" from "philanthropists" like the Sainsbury clan, and entities like PwC. In other words, meltism is actively incentivised (not that it needed to be) and sections of capital have a greater, more direct relationship with with Labour's top team. It also behoves those wanting to move up the parliamentary ranks to pay the same game, effectively working toward what the priorities of wealthy backers as opposed to those the party occasionally affects to represent. This puts further distance between the party's elite and its constituency, insulating them from upwelling pressures, thickening the tin ears with coatings of lead, and more or less guaranteeing a future of further electoral woe.

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

A Tale of Two Podcasts

As readers know, the book is here and I've done a little bit of left media to push it. For your entertainment, here are the two shows I spoke to last week. In order of appearance, here's the conversation I had with Grace Blakeley at A World to Win.



And here I am chatting with Phil Dore from Unfashionably Internationalist.


Give them a listen while I spend my everning writing a module handbook!

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Keir Starmer's Managed Democracy

The Tories should be having a rough time. Their recent reshuffle compounds the calamities forced on us. They have presided over the worst foreign policy disasters in British political history twice in as many years. The triple lock is ending, National Insurance is going up for employees, and millions of working families are about to lose a £1,000/year. Shops are experiencing food shortages, the idiotic Tory Brexit deal has stoked the fires of a militant Unionism in the throes of decline, and now gas prices are threatening the production of meatstuffs and menacing Christmas into the bargain. We're at the reverse Midas touch stage of this Tory government, and one a competent opposition would have no problem carving up while serving as the repository for disaffection from all quarters. Sadly, we have an opposition that is missing in action.

Never have so many goals been missed or opportunities passed up by a Labour leader. In his person, Keir Starmer condenses all the place-seeking and petty-mindedness of the Labour right - except he's blissfully unaware how he's filleting his position like a kipper. Consider the latest wheeze, now confirmed to the BBC and given in writing in conference documents: the electoral college is returning. A fever dream of the Labour right just two years ago, the prospect of its return is real. It's entirely possible Starmer could end Labour's short experiment with elementary bourgeois democratic norms and retreat to the managed democracy his lackeys ostentatiously find objectionable in Russia, Belarus, Hungary, etc. Returning to the system that last ran in 2010, the proposals award each MP the equivalent of 2,000 member votes and even more affiliated trade unionist votes. Simply put, no defence of this exists on formal grounds, so out come the bullshit arguments.

The first is MPs are more representative of the population as a whole than the membership. This is obviously untrue, whichever way you look at it. Our parliamentarians can look forward to the basic tidy annual sum of £82k, easily putting them in the top 20% of earners. This leaves out perks, corporate comps, directorships and lucrative sidelines that have the fortuitous tendency to stop at their station. There is a widening gulf between them and the consequences of the policies they debate in the Commons. And while there are good sorts who demonstrate empathy because they've been there, or they have good politics, most do not feel an emotional attachment to the suffering governments inflict. Their position insulates them. Social being conditions consciousness and therefore politics, which is why it remains common to still find on the Labour benches fans of scrounger rhetoric, true believers in unemployment being a result of personal failings, and joblessness the consequence of "cultures of worklessness" - not lack of jobs. From here flow other sins, such as mistaking one's mediocrity for profundity, how the public champ at the bit for military intervention overseas, and that nothing has changed in fundamentals since 1997.

Inhabiting this rarefied space breathes life into one popular self-serving argument - at least popular among the Labour right. When they were temporarily out of office and out of sorts in the Corbyn interlude, every tweet or Facebook post mildly critical of the scabby behaviour of right wing Labour MPs was hysterically denounced as abuse, bullying, misogyny, and antisemitism. There was litte concern their mountains from molehills act would affect Labour's chances, because our self-styled election-winning specialists had no interest in winning an election. Quite the opposite. Now they're back in the driving seat purging the left and stitching up party democracy with an enthusiasm that would make the crudest Kremlin fixer blush, bloodletting is not only good when they're wielding the axe; the public love to see it too. At least according to them.

For Starmer, to his mind and those advising him choosing to go into conference promising a showdown with the left and the trade unions is Blairite colour-by-numbers. What better way to show the media and anyone watching that not only is he tuss enough to be a proper leader, but if circumstances demand he'd happily defend the bourgeois interest against the people his party was set up to represent. But this is a gamble, and could easily shade into overreach. With Corbyn sidelined, recent accidentally-on-purpose difficulties kept off the front pages, the right wing tilt to opposition causing Starmer little bother, and a change of leadership at Unite pledged to expend less energy on Labour Party affairs, why not strike while the iron is hot? Risky, yes. But what he's banking on is the plodding conservatism of loyalist union bureaucrats and CLP delegates. This is Starmer's first proper conference as party leader, so the pressure's on not to embarrass the leader by seeing him defeated. Even if he's determined to make an arse of himself. It's this loyalism they're banking on, because as the BBC piece notes, little preparation has been done.

You don't need me to tell you the Labour leader is digging his own grave. He's faithfully followed the Labour right play book since he lied his way into office, but apart from that, and much to the surprise of many who would not describe themselves as leftwingers, Starmer has shown himself up as useless and spineless. Worse, the amateurishness and non-opposition is grating. If Starmer's changes are passed by conference and the member influence is carved out, the grumbles will get louder. The anonymous briefers will command more column inches, and a poor by-election result or an awful showing at next year's locals means curtains, paving the way for someone else.

Monday, 20 September 2021

The Politics of AUKUS

Yet again, more excellent commentary from Politics Theory Other. The tripartite pact between Australia, the UK, and the United States (and the subsequent freezing out of France) with the aim of containing China has, understandably, stoked the fears of a new cold war. As Paul Rogers rightly argues in his interview, this might be a warning to Beijing that the Anglo-Saxon powers are back in business, but also the arms manufacturers need their military Keynesianism and all three governments get props (they think) from looking tough on the world stage. A virtuous political circle, in other words. In his contribution, David Brophy argues this is unlikely to disrupt the trading relationship between Australia and China yet, though notes that despite the latter being the country's largest partner by trade volumes the actual proportion of domestic capital dependent on strong Chinese links is nothing compared to the UK and US interests that dominate the economy. A case then of the National/Liberal coalition government knowing which side their bread is buttered, and throwing their lot in with their big brothers overseas.


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Sunday, 19 September 2021

Dead Wood and Crooked Timbers

Now the dust has settled and the most excitable media commentary is out of the way, what can be said of Boris Johnson's reshuffle? On one level, not a lot. The government has overseen 150,000 Covid deaths is bent on pushing the totals higher. The same war on woke rubbish hasn't gone away, nor has the determination to shield the wealthy. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Among the big ticket items was the bumping of Gavin Williamson down to the backbenches. Rumour has it there will be a knighthood in the post to ease his bruises, and knowing Williamson is the worst vainglorious place seeker he's going to insist on the "Sir" at every conceivable function. Up to and including dealings with his kids. As for offences committed during his time in office, Williamson distinguished himself with singular incompetence and arrogance and attracted the brickbats for it, which does provide the Prime Minister some service. The debacle of Covid in schools is the education secretary's fault and not Boris Johnson's responsibility, for instance. But there's only so much punishment such a figure can soak up before the flood of anger swamps the Prime Minister. Williamson was at saturation point and had to go. Moving Nadhim Zahawi indicates that Johnson has a similar role in mind for him. Zahawi has become a relatively familiar government face during the pandemic, but apart from that he's not well known among the public. On the surface more reasonable and more popular in Westminster than his predecessor, it's worth remembering his "reasonableness" extends to backing Johnson from the beginning, and claiming for heating his nags' stables on MP's expenses. A more emollient tone is the most that can be expected, and for his fans on the centre left and columnist land, that will be enough.

The other big casualty was the appalling Dominic Raab. Like Williamson, by the time Johnson shuffled him out of the foreign secretary role he was resembling a punch bag with stuffing spilling everywhere. His incompetence, like that of his boss, received the full glare of publicity following the disintegration of the British position in Afghanistan. And here, Raab performed the fall guy role brilliantly. At a rate of knots, the media spotlight shifted from the humiliation inflicted on the Western allies to the drama of the Pen Farthing animal airlift, and whether Raab picked up the phone to his outgoing counterpart in Kabul or not. A masterpiece of misdirection, having it consume the foreign secretary was a price Johnson was happy to pay. And with the energy bar depleted, he's been demoted - albeit disguised as a promotion - by his appointment as justice secretary, with the deputy PM dunce cap added to spare his blushes. Raab himself is as stupid as he is unsuited as a parliamentarian, let alone any office of government, but Westminster watchers and their appreciation of its history know that the last time the deputy honorific was doled out to ease a demotion - the blessed Margaret's "retirement" of Geoffrey Howe - the worm turned with devastating effect when the time was right. History could well repeat itself, but as we're dealing with Dominic Raab here it's unlikely to be anything other than farce. Moving up Liz Truss into Raab's boots is, from a Tory party point of view, a wise move. She's popular with the wider party and is seen as a "doer" thanks to her modest clutch of Brexit trade deals. Just don't ask about the abandonment of greenhouse standards in the Australian deal.

Meanwhile the actual deputy PM, Michael Gove, was awarded a super department. As politically awful Gove is he has proven himself a competent administrator, which is something of a rarity among Johnson's cabinet of prima donnas and failures. Having carried the Johnson operation on the business side of things, this most obsequious of satraps is in receipt of a mega office combining housing and local government with the official, no one's making this up, title of 'the Department of Levelling Up. As firm believers of 'if you repeat a lie enough the punters will believe it', the suspicion is we're going to see some "radical" thinking applied to housing, given the reputation as a reformer/wrecker Gove acquired when he was at education. When he held the shadow brief under Dave, Gove was interested in increasing the housing supply. But radical action in this direction, like a right to buy for private tenants, for example, is highly unlikely given the Tory dependence on propertied interests.

Naturally, neither Priti Patel nor Rishi Sunak were in any danger. As heirs apparent, getting shot of either would have riled up their followings on the backbenches. But what was entirely predictable was the elevation of the likes of Nadine Dorries and Kemi Badenoch. Dorries finds herself as culture secretary not because of her expanding library of romantic novels (readily available in a charity shop near you), but precisely because she's pig ignorant. Coming to notice as a "colourful" character after 2005 and best known for her stint in the celebrity jungle, Dorries's litany of "gaffes" and outright bullshit is perfect for upsetting liberal sensitivities and acting as a lightning rod for "elite" concerns with things like inconveniently situated listed structures. The same is true of Badenoch. Appointed equalities minister, the unearthing of homophobic and transphobic comments from three years ago are unsurprising. Johnson appointed her in the full knowledge of her views, and is fully aware past and future outrages would, in his view, play well in firming up the Conservative vote ahead of the next election. In true Tory form, that she will give succour to bigotry and make life a misery for precarious and targeted minorities counts for nothing.

Meet the new government, same as the old government. Johnson has cleared out the dead wood, firmed up his position by promoting new meat shields, and has signalled that it's business as usual as far as he's concerned. And with an opposition going nowhere fast, except inwards, the sad, awful truth is he's likely to get away with it.

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Friday, 17 September 2021

Cock Up and Conspiracy

There are few things that can be described as coincidence in politics, and especially in the Labour Party. A bit more than a week has passed since Jess Barnard, the chair of Young Labour received a notice of investigation. A haphazard and pathetic effort sent at one in the morning, this implied solidarity against transphobia is something that has no place in Keir Starmer's Labour Party. If one was feeling generous it could be put down to a "tired and confused" staffer gone rogue and in no way reflects on the professional and neutral complaints process the current leadership have pledged to set up.

Except it's happened again. Kate Osborne, Labour MP for Jarrow has written about the notice of investigation she received on Friday morning. Told that she should not show it to anyone but could give the Samaritans a bell if she found it distressing, she obtained legal advice and by tea time the notice had been rescinded. She didn't say what the warning found so objectionable, but according to Aaron Bastani it was a tweet from June 2020 where she expressed her solidarity with Rebecca Long-Bailey. You might recall RLB was forced to resign as shadow education secretary for tweeting an interview with Maxine Peake published in The Independent.

Kate wonders aloud about the members targeted in a similar way who aren't as prominent as her and don't have legal advice to draw on. The dragnet, it seems, is being cast wide. Sienna Rodgers reports how one such letter was wrongly sent to an address where she lives. And meanwhile Heather Mendick, a Jewish party member and supporter of Jewish Voice for Labour, is being forced to answer a series of substantial charges without leave to properly prepare. Amateur hour meets abuse of process, a fitting summation of Starmerist managerialism.

What are we to make of this shambles? This is the week, in case anyone need reminding, where Labour should be capitalising on the Tory tax hike and knocking lumps out of Boris Johnson's plan for mass Covid infections. Instead, there's no follow up, no consistent pressure on the Tories, and no discipline in their party organisation as the apparat enjoy free reign to sate their bloodlust. How is anyone in the Labour Party supposed to direct their fire at the Tories when the leadership and its allies, satraps, and running dogs are determined to pettifog, intimidate and expel?

Going back to the Jess Barnard farce, the apparat was caught off guard by the backlash and very quickly it was blamed on the temps the party has hired to clear the backlog ahead of the new complaints system. If it was genuine inexperience and/or the zeal of a temp looking to impress in the hope of a permanent position, it ain't half funny how these notices keep hitting leftwingers. Rightwingers from parliamentary down to constituency level are somehow evading the grip of the manners police, as if Islamophobia, transphobia, and anti-black racism have teflon-like properties. It is, in other words, deliberate.

Consider the context. Of all the pledges of Starmer's leadership run, the pretended concern for unity is the one he has trampled on the most. Promises made and promises disregarded, this alone should disqualify him as Labour leader, let alone Prime Minister. With his pathetic witchhunt now backed by retrospective offences, in contravention of the most elementary bourgeois jurisprudence, the push for purging from the centre is empowering every mid-level pen pusher, self-appointed guardian of CLP probity, and Facebook screen-shotter. The culture is ripe for a tendency to work towards the leader, opportunistic forms of behaviour to be found in all organisations once the line of march is clear. I doubt Starmer or David Evans picked up the phone and commanded a minion to rid them of this troublesome Jarrow MP, but they have purposely created a culture where perverse and false accusations become the norm, not the exception. They don't need closed WhatsApp groups or secret shindigs on Teams. They wound the machine up and are watching it go. Everything is working as it should.

What's in it for them? Certainly nothing to do with getting match fit ahead of an early election in 2023. With a supine press not about to splash their reckless stupidities across their pages, the twin demons of intimidation and absurdity will drive dozens of their targets out of the party. And with each of them, hundreds of others disgusted at their charade. This is not accident, but design. This ultimately will cost the party dear, and rob Starmer of his chance at the top job. He might be naive enough to believe he has to do this to get to Number 10, but the people he listens to are not. For them, what matters is neither winning elections nor a formidable party organisation, but the security of an easy life. And Starmer in all his gormless stupidity is, for the moment, the right tool for their scabby wrecking job.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Dannii Minogue - All I Wanna Do

Too tired for blogging this evening, but not enough for this underrated gem. Props to Alex for reminding me of it. Pro-tip: check out the album.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

The Winter Covid Plan's Reckless Stupidity

Have you heard? According to the Prime Minister's press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Covid-19 is "still out there. Shocking if true. But more seriously, leading off with such a banal, self-evident statement, the fact Boris Johnson felt it necessary to remind people at home that the pandemic is causing sickness and death speaks to the false sense of security the government have constructed since nearly all restrictions were lifted. With the Tories acting as if the Delta variant is no bad thing, why should the public behave any different?

Indeed, this lack of seriousness characterises the Tory winter Covid plan. In the Commons earlier, Sajid Javid unveiled some initiatives to curb the spread of the virus. Central was the booster programme for the over 50s, the clinically vulnerable, and frontline health and care workers. This is supported by rolling out vaccinations to 12-15 year olds, and a renewed effort at encouraging the unvaccinated to take up their jabs. Can you spot the hole in this plan? This is an effort aimed at curbing serious illness, not the spread of the virus itself. Which, in case folks need reminding, is crucial if we want the world to resume some sort of normality any time soon. Why? Because new research suggests the evolution of Covid is accelerating. With more infections the scope for mutation expands and the selection for adapted strains becomes more probable. At the press conference, Chris Whitty's furrowed brow creased over the prospect of vaccine escape and resistant variations of the disease - something the Tories, judged by their actions, are chillaxed about.

Nothing emphasises this like the Javid/Johnson plan B if things get really bad. The Prime Minister's grand scheme would, as the emergency bites, start mandating masks in public places, bring in vaccine passports for mass events, and encourage public vigilance. In other words, a plan more appropriate to now than when the NHS is groaning under mass hospitalisations, more death, and the horrors a vaccine resistant strain would visit on us.

It really is quite simple. No one is advocating an immediate national lockdown, but mask mandates in public places, large workplaces, and educational settings, a reversal of the Tories' reckless and mind-bendingly stupid efforts at undermining the NHS app, a sensible approach to schooling as opposed to the dogmatic "you will send your children to school, even if everyone at home is riddled with Covid", and perhaps not being so determined to generate as many superspreader events as possible are good places a strategy aimed at "living with the virus" could start with. That is if the Tories are interested in stopping the spread of the disease at all.

They're not. The most malignant disease of the last 18 months could not have asked for a better ally than the country's most malignant political force for the last 180-odd years. When you look at their pitiful attempts at pandemic management, when they rely on a faulty theory of herd immunity, which is put into question every time a viable new variant emerges, and when they refuse to put into place the social safety net that would enforce effective social isolation and limit spread, one is forced to ask why. It's too coincidental and consistent to be the outcome of accident, incompetence, and ideology fighting shy of evidence. And it goes to the heart of what the Conservative Party is.

We visited this issue last year. Public health is secondary to what is truly important to the Tories: the protection of the wage relation, the preservation of the imbalance of power which sees labour dependent on capital, securing the property investments of institutional investors and petty landlordism, and ensuring society remains safe for the circulation of self-expanding capital. It's the interests, stupid. The Tories can believe whatever rubbish they like - Great Reset nonsense, face mask Stalinism, even anti-vax crap - it's funny how the logical outcomes of implementing policy informed by their concerns happens to make life sweeter for the interests the Tories organise and articulate. Capital's insatiable demand to accumulate, dependent on the continual reinforcement of class relationships cares not a jot about Covid or any other pathogen. It is a blind, remorseless, senseless beast that needs bodies working and spending. The Tories, as its most fervent political servitor are only too glad to do its bidding. Even if it means putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk.

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Monday, 13 September 2021

A Man Without Qualities

Perhaps one day I'll write something that congratulates Keir Starmer for doing the right thing, but not today. Reflecting on his relationship with the Labour leader, Len McCluskey has penned a short piece on the deal he and a group of left Labour MPs put together with the leader's office and Angela Rayner to give the whip back to Jeremy Corbyn following his suspension. After negotiations the former leader did what was asked of him and signed a statement drafted by Starmer's team, only for Starmer to row back and start demanding apologies for Jeremy's - correct - claim that accusations of antisemitism were seized upon and used in transparently factional ways to undermine his leadership. The full detail of the sordid story was published by Novara in July.

What spooked Starmer into reneging on his deal? It was Margaret Hodge and the right wing astroturf outfit, the Jewish Labour Movement. As hardened factionalists and sensing an opportunity to give their nemesis the push, both threw their toys out of the proverbial and promised ructions if he was readmitted. As a pathetic weakling Starmer cleaved to their blackmail, fearful accusations of not taking antisemitism seriously would dog him just as they did his predecessor. In reality, both Hodge and the JLM's leading lights need the party label far more than Labour's good name needs them, but Starmer was more willing to risk the undying enmity of the left and a swathe of voters than stand up to right wing factionalism. And it's going to cost him.

Such cowardice suffuses Starmer's approach to politics. As noted plenty of times here before, Labour leaders have two choices. Either try and lead by putting forward their analysis, identify problems, and offer policies for addressing them, or just collapse like a jelly and try and tail public opinion as articulated by right wing editorials. Corbyn and, to a degree, Ed Miliband did the first. Starmer hasn't once, even during the solid gold opportunity offered by the Tory National Insurance increase. There's a path of least resistance, and another of completely keeping your head down in the hopes of squeaking in by default.

This most yellow-bellied politics conditions Starmer's attitude to the party membership. Not only are bureaucrats given carte blanche to harass young working class women at all hours of the night, the leader himself is petrified by the thought of rubbing shoulders with the people who gave him his job. Take humble old Stoke-on-Trent, for instance. His painful interview with Beth Rigby at Stoke Sixth Form College was preceded by his decision to visit the Potteries without bothering to let local Labour members know. For the third time. I understand a senior local activist got wind of the visit and asked about inviting the membership but was brusquely informed that Starmer was on a tight schedule and didn't have the time. It's almost as if he's running scared of someone asking an awkward question out of turn. If he can't handle a tame line of questioning about wealth taxes, imagine if he was asked about the Forde report, the ditching of his leadership pledges, or to account for his pitiful polling? Never has a Labour leader, not even one as under siege as Gordon Brown was, fought shy of the people he expects to campaign for him.

Anyone casting a cursory critical eye in Starmer's direction cannot fail to notice his complete lack of qualities. Authoritarian but thin-skinned, pretending to be left wing when it suited, but now pretending to be right wing in a wrong-headed approach at winning over Tory voters. Haughty, dishonest, untrustworthy, and cowardly, if he had appeared on the scene 10 years ago he would have been mistaken for a Blairite. Mistaken, because at least that caste of MPs have political backgrounds in spadding and bag carrying. Starmer is emptier than even that.

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Sunday, 12 September 2021

Falling Down: Author's Notes

The publication date of Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain draws near. Though, in reality, the buying public have been able to get hold of it this last fortnight via Verso themselves and other dispensers of books. All for the good.

Thinking about a book you have written just before the bulk of the reviews come trundling in is a new experience for me. On the whole, I think the left are going to like it and the centrists and the right will dismiss it as gobbledegook or hopelessly foolish. I mean, how can the Tories be said to be in decline when they've increased their popular vote at every election following the 1997 debacle? And those advancing that point will reveal themselves as someone who hasn't read the thing. Already I can find myself anticipating some criticisms with the stock "you haven't read it properly." Isn't this something all authors do? An adjacent criticism of would be imputing a demography-is-destiny argument, while the book is at pains to stress probabilities and tendencies. And another, this time coming from the left, might criticise the book for saying pensioners are the enemy and we need to unite on a class basis. Which, of course, it doesn't argue and has never been argued around these parts in the nine years I've been writing about this.

In truth, parrying criticisms in advance is a fruitless exercise. Reviewers are going to say what they're going to say, whether that is consistent with the argument made or not. But perhaps there is some utility in saying what I think the book tries to do.

1. Serve as an all-purpose leftwing introduction to the Tory party from 1979 to Johnson's election triumph in 2019. But with some necessary milestones from before this period name checked.

2. Advance a theory of Tory decline incorporating what is useful in existing approaches on the left and the right while overcoming their limits.

3. Demonstrate the Tories are a ruling class project and understanding this is key to interpreting seemingly contradictory and illogical political positions - from the standpoint of capitalist rationality the Tories have assumed.

4. Recapitulate the well-trodden territory of Thatcher's gradual imposition of neoliberal governance, but accord the John Major years their full importance in bedding it down. This remained the central concern of his government even after electoral defeat became increasingly obvious and he was beset with party management issues.

5. Argues these processes of subjectivation were entirely intentional. Thatcher was clear-eyed about their application and consequences to affect an atomisation of (particularly working class) voters and their re-interpellation as acquisitive, petit bourgeois monads (NB - I don't use this language in the book!). Property is central to this.

5. Break with dominant political science narratives about the Tories' 1997-2005 period. Far from an outbreak of bilious irrationality, it consolidated their base in the immediate aftermath of shattering defeat.

6. Defy received narratives of liberal/centrist Tory rebranding and discussing how touchy-feely posturing of Cameron in opposition turned into the two-nation Toryism of government. Again, the class characteristics are clearly visible during his six years in office.

7. Shows the Cameron years accelerated the age splits in politics around class and property owning cohorts, paving the way for the coalition building centred on retired people accomplished by May and Johnson and how their Brexit shenanigans have to be viewed in this light.

There is much more in the book, but these are the key points. Some dry detail about the formal Tory party and the ins and outs of policy were unavoidable, but there's also plenty on shenanigans and scandal. Including digging up some that have fallen down the politics memory hole. In the end, I couldn't cover everything. Indeed, substantial works could be written on the aspects of Tory politics and practice the book highlights. I'd like to revisit the Major years in more depth, for example. I hope the book meets the metric by which all scholarly socialist work should be judged: an ability to stimulate serious, activist research and make politics more knowable. In this case, understanding the past so we can change the future, and contributing to the most important, immediate objective of socialists everywhere: depriving the Conservative Party of office, and inflicting a historic defeat on this most incorrigible enemy of our movement.

Friday, 10 September 2021

Solidarity with Jess Barnard

I don't normally comment on ongoing party disciplinary cases, but Labour's decision to notify Jess Barnard, the Chair of Young Labour, was under investigation is repugnant, disgusting, and entirely cynical. Owen Jones reports how action was being taken for sending "threatening" tweets in October last year. These tweets, which you can view for yourself, do nothing but challenge the transphobia found depressingly common among the centre left, not least a number of Labour MPs. Yet Jess's remarks are beyond the pale as far as our complainant is concerned.

Apart from the spurious grounds for the suspension, in the statement Jess shared the email informing her of the party's decision was sent at 1am in the morning, and no safeguarding efforts have been made by in light of the mental health difficulties Jess lives with - something she has talked about on occsion and are known to Labour's top brass.

Naturally, this has absolutely nothing to do with policing the conduct of Labour Party members. It's an entirely transparent attempt at forcing out the chair of Young Labour and breaking up the organisation. Whether this was green lit by the general secretary, whether some jumped up junior staffer wanted to flex their bureaucratic muscles, or if the complaint was submitted by a left-hating cynic, they know it doesn't stand any chance of being upheld. But they also know about Jess's health, and their hope is by dragging her through the complaints process she will not have the energy to intervene in Labour party politics and, in the end, compel her to resign. Remember, we have the receipts where the abuse of admin privileges in the party are concerned.

But this is more than just neutralising a troublesome voice on the Labour left. Since Jeremy Corbyn's suspension from the parliamentary party, the right have been increasingly emboldened and are pursuing a strategy of friction. Try and make life hard for socialists in the party by adopting stupid positions and purging leftists, and watch the left leave. Membership is down by over a hundred thousand since Keir Starmer became leader, and the right know putting off more leftwingers makes it easier to maintain their grip. This end, the only end the Labour right care about always justifies the means. Even if a besieged and powerless minority are the ones ultimately damaged.

This conversion of the party into an open sewer cannot be allowed to stand. Give your Labour representatives and lay officers an earful, lobby NEC members, use Labour link networks in your union, kick up a stink in the CLP, and support the defence campaign. Full solidarity with Jess Barnard.

UPDATE: According to the Graun's Heather Stewart, Labour have rescinded the complaint.

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Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Geronimo and Conservative Philosophy

The saga of the dearly departed Geronimo rumbles on a week after he was put down at the government's behest. There's a lot of toing and froing between Defra vets and Geronimo's owner, Helen Macdonald, about the meaning of the results, but it's the actual politics surrounding the demise of the hapless alpaca that have got interesting.

As noted last month, this case allowed Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer to burnish their tough guy/tough choices credentials. We can't well have our leaders swayed by things like compassion or common sense, or allow a case such as this be seen to undermine their standing. For Johnson, too many u-turns undermines his precious authority. For Starmer, protecting and re-legitimising state institutions, particularly the power of the executive, are also central to his politics. It's not that he failed to make populist capital out of Geronimo's onrushing doom. I doubt the notion even occurred to him.

More interesting, however, is the popular reaction. Or, to be more precise, the reaction of voters who normally support the Tories. Tory press comment sections and Facebook groups are wall-to-wall with lamentations for the dear departed and anger aimed at Defra and the government both. Curious, one might think, how an animal can inspire a show of mass empathy and sadness when human tragedies caused by the wars of Western governments, like Afghanistan, for example, raise barely a murmur of concern from the same quarters. What is the difference?

If one has enjoyed a passing acquaintance with the banalities of conservative philosophy, its positioning of human nature has it as something heartless and cruel. The emergence and maintenance of tradition married to cautiously slow-paced change and the smack of firm government helps keep the demon spirits in check. What the Tories have managed to do, with the able assistance of New Labour, is over the course of 40 years is organise, socialise, and cultivate this misanthropic assumption via conscious political strategies and institutional design. A case of the reality of human nature catching up with its idea off the back of a programme of social engineering.

There are some exemptions to the de facto distrust and cynicism this organises in millions of minds. An ever-shrinking pool of who is permitted to be regarded as the deserving poor. And animals. Here, animals are positioned as innocents, helpless creatures who can't help but be the victims of cruel humans. Their non-sapience and relatively fixed natures, and ignorance of the human world simultaneously renders them objects to be pitied and entities to be envied. Because of their fundamental, essentialised naivete they require protection and, in the thoroughly neoliberalised conservative imaginary, are much more deserving, rank higher than, and find a place in the hearts of these people than human beings. After all, as sentient beings capable of making choices, if we end up in a bad or sad situation it's our responsibility we got into a mess and our responsibility to climb out of it.

In the case of Geronimo then, we're seeing a well publicised but modest blowback against the Tories. Having cultivated mass indifference to the suffering of other people, Johnson's complicity in the destruction of a harmless alpaca has struck at sections of his party's loyal supporter base like few things can.

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Tuesday, 7 September 2021

How to Ruin an Opportunity

In the interests of scrupulous fairness, Keir Starmer gave a good account of himself in the Commons. Replying to Boris Johnson's punitive plan to soak relatively comfortable pensioners to protect the wealthy from spiralling care costs, there were glimpses of what an effective parliamentary opposition might look like.

Starmer's response was hardly soaring, but it did the job. With the Tories protecting wealthy pensioners and landlords, and making everyone else cough up here was the shiniest of golden opportunities for Labour. A moment the party could demonstrate the Tories haven't changed, despite their levelling up con and the thousand and one pledges Johnson has made to build a blue Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land. A moment for showing up the Tories for standing with the classes, while Labour was with the masses. And in his own ponderous way, Starmer defied terribly low expectations and managed it.

The Labour leader being the Labour leader, there were the correct process criticisms. The money going to care isn't about improving quality or uprating the pay of this most undervalued of professions. There was no relief for unpaid carers in the family, nor a plan for the social care needs of disabled people. He attacked the Tories for breaking their manifesto commitment to not raise taxes. He even veered into left populist territory, noting how this is a tax rise on supermarket workers, nurses, and young people, sections of the workforce not known for being flush with cash. Landlords aren't affected but their renters are. Starmer mentioned how Labour would have approached this with a proper plan, and one that would not tinker with the funding but change it entirely. His favoured solution was expecting more from wealthy people by taxing stocks, shares, dividends, and property more effectively.

Has someone replaced the Leader of the Opposition? These lines would play well to the tens of millions hammered by the Tories, but unfortunately a lot of people who need inspiring and a reason to support Labour aren't likely to be enthused by the sound bite chosen to get pushed on social media.

When it comes to modern political speeches, standard practice is a series of bland statements with emphasis placed on the one-line message the writer and/or speaker wants to get across. And so while Starmer's reply to Johnson was borderline Corbynish in content, this talking point was designed to steal the show:
Mr Speaker, read my lips. The Tories could never again claim to be the party of low tax.
Not many people would appreciate (or for that matter, notice) the call back to George Bush Senior's 1988 tax promise, but as with everything else half way oppositional Starmer has uttered, it conforms to right wing framing. As if former Labour voters and Tory-leaning floaters were attracted to the Tories in 2017 and 2019 on the basis of tax promises. Small statism is not the battleground for winning over the Starmer-curious. What is is a credible plan that would properly address and reverse the class war policies the Tories have presided over for 11 years, and undo baleful legacies left by the last Labour government too. This is the prospectus that can win an election. What isn't is a platform that adopts Tory language and is more comfortable attacking the Tories from the right. It won't win over Conservative voters, but it will almost certainly put off sections of Labour's existing coalition it needs onside if the party is to stand a chance.

Overall and despite the bluebottle in the soup, is Starmer's leftish response a sign that the era of factionalist-driven policy and the Labour right's habitual attachment to the comfort zone of opposition is over? It takes more than one swallow to make a spring, and more than one good day in the Commons to establish a shift.

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The Tories' Regressive Social Care Plan

In the worst kept secret since the last one, Boris Johnson has announced National Insurance will be going up by 1.25% to pay for the crisis in social care. Monies paid are certainly going up, but its destination isn't what was widely trailed this last fortnight. Over half of the £12bn raised is to be funnelled toward the NHS to help tackle the waiting times backlog caused by the government's mishandling of the pandemic, while £5.6bn moves into care itself. Speaking at his press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Boris Johnson said it was a "fair" and "progressive" move - truly a case of effortless lying.

There are several reasons why this is risible. The first, most obvious fact is how workers are paying for this and those who don't pay National Insurance - the retired, landlords - are not. It doesn't take an eagle eye to draw inferences between the propensity to vote Tory and the government's happiness to shield certain groups from the costs of their policies. The second is how this is regressive in all sorts of ways. Businesses, for example, are having their contributions hiked as well but those under a certain size will either be exempt or have to pay it at a reduced rate. Protection for a sizeable proportion of the petit bourgeois, protection for another core group of Tory voters. The same courtesy however is not extended to wage earners, including small business staff, who are getting walloped with the flat rate. A mild inconvenience for someone pulling in £50k, but a big chunk out of the wage packet for the low paid. Who, readers will recall, are about to lose £20/week as Rishi Sunak chops down Universal Credit support. As a sop to "fairness", shareholders are facing a 1.25% levy on dividends.

Then there is the cap. In two years' time, a costs cap will be introduced ensuring personal care liabilities accrued over a lifetime will be capped at £86,000. This is also going to be tapered. Those with fewer than £20k in assets won't have to pay anything, and those upto £100k in assets will have to pay a reduced contribution. Undoudtedly we can expect to see the cap edge upwards over time in tune with property wealth, but this "progressive" measure, again, will hit the more modestly wealthy the hardest. With median house prices in England and Wales around £250k (for Wales it's £170k) as of December 2020, a lot of pensioners below the median - people of otherwise fairly modest means - are going to have a greater proportion of their estate eaten up than those in more expensive properties. It's a measure aimed at protecting the wealth of middle class and rich pensioners. The family of the retired stock broker will inherit a healthy chunk of their wealth because their former personal assistant, secretaries, and researchers are giving up a greater proportion of their assets. Obviously this gap becomes even starker if a couple go into care.

In short, forget the rubbish about the tax and spend Tories and the "you've got to hand it to them" plaudits. They've set up their proposed "rescue" of social care and the NHS in the most inequitable manner the party could get away with, shielding their important core constituencies while hoping poorer pensioners won't notice how they subsidise the rich. It's an abject lesson in how the concern for inequality and its perpetuation is at the heart of Tory policy.

At the press conference, Rishi Sunak defended the National Insurance increase by appealing to the instincts of Tory Britain: it was either do this, or borrow more money. A claim that is manifestly untrue. As the Evening Standard observed in May, the UK's 171 billionaires saw their wealth jump by £106.5bn - over a fifth - in the last year. There was no need to tax wage earners at all as a wealth tax of 12% on this tiny segment of the super rich would have more than covered the first year's costs. A bit less ambitious maybe, but Andy Burnham had his own cheaper alternative focused on taxing estates. Regressive, but nowhere near as regressive as the Tory bundle.

A couple more notes about the politics of this sorry announcement. This has clearly been done with an eye to the future. From April 2023 this will show up on payslips as a Health and Social Care Levy. Naming taxes and making them visible has long been a favoured right wing strategy to delegitimise public services and construct voters as taxpayers whose only interest in tax is to see it reduced. By signposting monies due to health and social care, it creates a query in the mind about where does the rest of tax paid go - a predisposition the Tories of the future will undoubtedly seek to exploit.

And the second, on the retired, the Tories had to noisily and publicly go after the working age people because of Sunak's desire to break the triple lock on pensions. As pensioners were in for a welcome and deserved increase to the basic pension of eight per cent this year, thanks to the rise in earnings following the Covid depression, Therese Coffey announced its suspension and a move to a rise determined by either inflation or 2.5%. She has said this will be for one year only, but given the constant rumours in the Tory press about the desire to do away with the triple lock, using the cover of an "exceptional year" and changes to social care is the way to do it.

In short, and with their characteristic instinct for divide and rule, the Tories have set about opposing the young to the old in a zero sum game of generational conflict - one they benefit from electorally - while ensuring the wellspring of all this, the system of class rule the Tories always put first, is secured against another potentially explosive challenge to its logics.

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Sunday, 5 September 2021

New Left Media September 2021

August is usually the quiet time in politics, but thankfully some new left media did come to prominence over the summer. Here's what caught my attention this last month. Please visit!

1. Africa, Africa! (Twitter) (YouTube channel)

2. Critical Mass (Twitter) (Facebook) (Magazine)

3. The Gentle Rambler (Twitter) (Podcast)

4. The People's Newsroom (Twitter) (Multimedia project)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs, podcasts, channels, Facebook pages or whatever that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email, Facebook, or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for new media that has started within the last 12 months. The round up appears hereabouts when there are enough new entrants to justify a post!

Saturday, 4 September 2021

Two Kinds of Capitalist Realism

In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher talks about how capitalism constitutes the horizon of the possible. Picking up and popularising Fredric Jameson's 'it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism', he describes a habit of mind, a sensibility, that is entirely defined by the demands and rationalities of the system. This isn't the same as saying there is no alternative politics or imaginaries or that people can't resist capitalism, but rather this is an imaginary, and the dominant one at that, unable to conceive of differing imaginaries. Its sense of the real is all there is, nothing else. Capitalist realism then is more than "ideology" or, horror of horrors, "false class consciousness", but habits of thought, practices, doxa cultivated, reinforced, and reiterated relationally. Rarely does capitalist realism announce itself as something to be accepted or rejected, but proceeds and insinuates by a multiplicity of contacts. It works precisely because it appears spontaneous and natural, though its current manifestation has a history and a process of conscious political constitution by generations of policy makers, elected and not.

We can talk about varieties of capitalist realism at different times and places, but today capitalist realism in British politics manifests in two policy-making forms. There is "conventional" capitalist realism as it presents itself to self-defined progressives, centrists, and technocrats. There's no point wasting time talking about alternatives when capitalism is the only game in town, so the horizon of centre left politics is determined by presenting as better managers of the system. The growth imperative is never questioned. What's good for business is good for society. But there are irrationalities and impurities in the system, and the task of a reforming government is to legislate away the difficulties and run the state as if it's GB plc. Equality as a virtue is defined by opportunity, not outcomes. Social justice is understood by "inclusion" and removing barriers to "aspiration", of levelling the playing field so, in effect, we're all equal before capital. Capitalism then assumes abstract proportions, a knowable abstract machine, that will work the best when the right levers are pulled in the right order. This mindset is one you are more likely to find among Labour and the the Liberal Democrats than the Tories, with slight permutations.

Then there is the form of capitalist realism that doesn't often get talked about. What might be more properly called bourgeois realism. Its logics are rarely spelled out, and prefers to use the language of conventional capitalist realism. George Osborne, for example, was a past master at this. Growth, growth, growth, and when Tory austerity undermined their stated objective, they either made up nonsense about paying down the debt or asserted their objectives as if it was evidence. They weren't interested in justifying what they were doing, because at a gut level they knew what they were doing was unjustifiable: heightening inequality and strengthening the whip hand of capital over labour. Tory governments since have not departed from putting the bourgeois class interest before the abstract machine of a fair and technocratic capitalism, hence why Boris Johnson can abandon what were previously considered touchstones of capitalist realism. If state largesse and selective industrial activism suits the sectional interests of the class he leads better than deregulation, privatisation, and more markets, then this is what bourgeois realism will go for.

In his book on Thatcherism, Alexander Gallas makes a distinction between economic order politics and class politics and uses these to periodise the governments from 1979 to the Blair years. He argues at different times the Tories pitched toward outright class politics to smash the labour movement, and concentrated more on the economy in conventional capitalist realist terms as they were gearing up for their assault and after the trade union dragon had been slain. But thinking through this distinction via the two kinds of capitalist realism allows for finer grained analysis of government strategy on a by policy and by politician basis. It also recognises how, despite the two forms broadly mapping onto historic party associations, each can and do at times adopt the realism of the other. The Labour right's scorched earth cynicism is their own form of bourgeois realism, pared down to pathetic self-interest and struggling to ensure Labour is fit for capital's endorsement. Something we saw with liberal remainia too. And now, especially after winning big in former Labour strongholds, new Tory MPs from less than well-heeled backgrounds find themselves thinking through politics in conventional realist terms and find it baffling how the party of business is pushing Universal Credit cuts and National Insurance hikes to pay for adult social care, measures that would suck growth out of these places.

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Friday, 3 September 2021

Neil Kinnock's Timely Warning

If only Tony Blair intoned as infrequently as Neil Kinnock, I'm sure Labour politics would be a slightly better place. However, in a genuinely rare intervention the former big man from six leaders ago had some interesting things to say as he launched the Fit for the Future report, penned by the Labour in Communications group. The two items that made the headlines spoke to your favourite topic and mine: internal Labour Party politics.

Asked about Momentum and whether it bore comparison with the Militant Tendency, Kinnock dismissed it. He said
Momentum, by mixture of accident and design but I think mainly design, has avoided the errors of directly transgressing the constitution ... They do not make the errors that Militant made. And, in any case, Momentum is not Militant. I heard the questioner describe them as “anti-Labour Party”, and I am sure there are people in Momentum who are malevolent towards the Labour Party as an organisation for all kinds of fancied ideological reasons and some personal ones. But I don’t think they are the significant people. I think the significant people are the ones who joined Momentum with the best intentions and for the best purpose of encouraging and indeed ensuring the radicalism of the Labour Party.
He also had words of warning for those fixated on factional disputes. Kinnock said:
There have always been people in the Labour Party – fortunately never a majority – who value power in Labour greater than power for Labour ... The only way to deal with them conclusively is for the great majority of those in the party to be so committed to democratic power for Labour that those whose struggles at whatever level become insignificant and therefore irrelevant.”
He added the party needed to "face outwards and attack the real enemy and focus our attention and energies on that, rather than trying to prove our worth and earn our spurs by victories in internal battles." Labour oppose the Tories? What a radical suggestion.

Taking the Militant point first, he is entirely right. Momentum is a loose network of leftwingers who elect a steering committee, vote in policy primaries, mobilise for internal elections and, famously, do a much better job of organising hordes of activists for campaigning than the party proper. Militant was an undercover Trotskyist outfit who was in Labour to build its own disciplined party organisation. These days it ekes out an existence as the Socialist Party under somewhat reduced circumstances. Not the kind of helping hand LOTO would have wished for in their efforts to delegitimise the left: the architect of Militant's expulsion rejecting their hysterical, bad faith efforts.

And then the remarks on factionalism. Again, Kinnock's right. The majority of the people involved in the Labour Party want to win elections, apart from a small coterie for whom the party provides with a career and standing, and nothing else. It just so happens this group of people are disproportionately present in the Parliamentary party and have the ear of the leader's office. Ask yourself if putting forward policy positions to the Tories' right, having two rule books, one giving carte blanche to Islamophobes, transphobes, and domestic abusers if they're prominent enough or factionally convenient, and the other for the rest of us, and continually, gratuitously lying about and trashing Labour's record between 2015 and 2019 is consistent with a strategy concerned with winning elections?

What are the politics of Kinnock's intervention? It's worth remembering when he took over from Michael Foot in 1983 that he was considered a figure of the soft left, and of we're honest about the limitations and contradictions of this "tradition", stayed fully within it. Even when he was purging Militant and wibbling about taxis, even when he was abstaining from backing the miners. And, more recently, when he called for people to join Labour to oust Jeremy Corbyn. But also he publicly, and somewhat embarrassingly exclaimed "we've got out party back" following Ed Miliband's first leader's speech in September 2010. Therefore, like the current deputy Labour leader, he can talk left when the occasion arises and will go off message when the moment demands. And this is one such moment.

Thing is, those piloting the Keir Starmer's ship to its inevitable wreck aren't serious about winning elections doesn't mean this is true for all the Labour right. There are plenty of Labour MPs and councillors who want to keep their seats for entirely self-interested reasons, and others who fancy the idea of a ministerial car and a phalanx of civil servants. Some centrists and rightwingers also genuinely believe putting out anaemic policy and distancing Labour from anything smacking of radicalism is the path to winning elections (I know, I was one of them for a time). The point is there's a constituency on the right of the party who want to win, and they're finding Starmer's leadership trying, misdirected, and lost. Kinnock is giving voice to this jittery tendency, some of whom would have approached him with their concerns.

His comments aren't simply the meanderings of an old duffer who's well travelled around the block, but something of a warning and a notice. Starmer had a lucky escape when Kim Leadbeater squeaked home in Batley and Spen, and since then leadership speculation and the grumbles have died down. But unease is abroad in the party, and it's not confined only to a maligned and wilfully misunderstood left. Kinnock is reminding the leadership that things have got to change, or the leadership will, in due course, itself be changed.

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