Sunday 31 October 2021

Who Will Lead after Keir Starmer?

Keir Starmer was inconvenienced by Coronavirus at the worst possible time. 20 minutes before Prime Minister's Questions, and 50 before Rishi Sunak re-announced his menu of spending commitments, his lieutenants had to scramble to fill the void. As someone who shamefacedly feels the pangs of nostalgia for simpler times, Ed Miliband stood in for the leader and gave a good account. Calling it a masterclass would be a stretch, but he had a more galvanising effect on the benches behind him than his Covid-afflicted boss. And then Rachel Reeves stepped in and also acquitted herself well. Not the most engaging of speakers, she managed a competent critique of Sunak's bungs to frequent fliers and banks. With other stepping up to the plate, it didn't take long for the speculation machine to start cranking up. Who's going to follow Starmer?

As far as I'm concerned, Starmer's leadership has proven itself to be a decadent disaster. Even so, despite pandering to the scorched earth sensibilities of the Labour right, they know a dud when they deal with one, and the end could come sooner rather than later. Given Claudia Webbe's conviction earlier this month, pending the outcome of her appeal Labour might be looking at a by-election in what was, prior to 2019, a very safe seat. If it's a good win, Starmer is safe. If it's a narrow margin, as per Batley and Spen, the knives might get put away for the local elections. But if it's a loss, whether to another George Galloway intervention or the Tories (somehow) manage it Starmer is toast.

Who is in the frame to replace him? The excitable chatter revolves around these three. Rachel Reeves because she had a good week, and probably knows how to chair a meeting and take the minutes. Lisa Nandy thanks to her ubiquity, certain adroitness in the media, and because Dominic Cummings singled her out for backhanded praise in his own 12,000 word attack on Starmer. Though Dom seems unaware that Wigan is in the North, not the Midlands. And lastly, Bridget Phillipson has been thrown in because she managed to not make a fool of herself in the week's round of interviews, including last Thursday's Question Time.

Appropriate we should be discussing these scary prospects on Halloween. Phillipson I know little about except she's "nice" and was fully on board with right wing wrecking tactics during the Corbyn interlude. Which included being one of the first Labour MPs to campaign for a second referendum, a genius stance that turned her safe seat into a marginal. Reeves, of course, is well known to readers. Having taken a more Labourist turn of late and keeping Rebecca Long-Bailey's ambitious green agenda (without due credit, of course), she has never apologised for her "the Tories are too soft on benefits" line, nor her complete lack of sense for nominating Jess Phillips's leadership bid/vanity vehicle in early 2020. To be honest, Reeves has never struck me as someone who fancies the top job. We hear time and again her ambition is to be the first female chancellor, and for once this isn't polite spin to unconvincingly mask loftier aspirations. Of the three women she is by far the most wonkish, and would be happy "doing policy" behind the closed doors of Number 11 and the Treasury. She's no frontwoman, and she knows she isn't. And then we have Lisa Nandy. A congenital inability to tell the truth should have sunk her career long ago. Instead, she's in the party's upper echelons and might have another crack at the top job. But, in my view, not any snap leader's poll to replace Dear Keir.

This round of speculation forgets there are other horses in the race for Starmer's job, and none of their insider prattle rises above the who's-going-to-marry-who musings of Coronation Street Facebook groups. In the first place, a few thoughts are worth expending on the timing of any contest. Assuming Leicester East or the next set of local elections do for Starmer, a contest is going to be early summer. If Johnson does go for an early election in 2023, a contest could happen inside a year from that point. This means no time for the customary leisurely leadership election, nor, presumably, a race that would show the party in a disunited light. The pressure would be on for a coronation, something made easier by the new threshold rules and the soft left's tendency to tail the right.

Who's in the frame? A good indicator are the MPs who've built up their own slush funds. David Lammy, Wes Streeting, and Dan Jarvis. They're there, but they might (might) give way for a well-connected saviour from the north. No, not Andy Burnham. But rather his 2015 opponent: Yvette Cooper.

For the Labour right, she's the ideal unity candidate. She ticks the awful Blue Labour boxes on immigration and, thanks to her select committee activities, established herself a hardliner on these matters. For those in thrall to the House of Commons illusio, she has the briefcase Labour creds as an experienced former minister, being better at the media than the Labour leader, and is more cutting in her lines of questioning against Johnson's lieutenants than Starmer's useless appeals to the referee. She also took a backseat during Labour's factional warfare, and as far as connecting with the public are concerned some in SW1 would find advantages in Ed Balls's stints on Strictly. What's more, she doesn't have to establish herself as a safe pair of hands with the Tory press. They know she is, and they know her politics would not fundamentally challenge the status quo. A coronation for Cooper would also have the happy consequence of making Labour even safer for capital ensuring the radicalism of recent years is just a trace left in historical accounts. Her prospectus would be a few more bones thrown to the trade unions - something they might tolerate under the present conditions of Covid and Brexit-induced labour shortages.

Could it happen? It's clear Starmer's leadership is heading straight for another Labour defeat, and those sections of the party who care about winning elections because it's their neck on the ballot box chopping block know it as well. A right wing safe pair of hands, someone they can spin as an experienced and serious figure, and whose spell out of the public eye allows for her re-presentation as someone "fresh", Cooper seems like the obvious choice for the Labour right and the PLP. A frightening prospect to be sure.

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Saturday 30 October 2021

Dragon's Fury for the MegaDrive/Genesis

Also known as Devil's Crash/Devil's Crush if you happen to be from Japan, Dragon's Fury is what happens if the witches, ghoulies, and evil spirits can't be bothered with trick or treating and instead spend their Halloween inside a pinball table. As made-up premises go it's as good as any. Hailed as the greatest pinball game to have ventured onto consoles at the time, battling Satan and his demonic host, it turns out, requires an oversized ball bearing and flippers. No need for holy water and sacraments.

How to describe such a game? The main table is three screens high with a playfield for each, and each is inhabited by foul servants of the dark lord. The top finds a troupe of cowled acolytes circling a spinning pentagram (in the Japanese version, at least). The middle table, and the trickiest to keep the ball in for any length of time, is home to the eponymous Dragon. Flanked by cadres of Quarterback-costumed skeletons, the face of a sleeping woman becomes more serpentine every time the ball reposes in one of the adjacent pockets. Eventually her mouth opens and a bonus stage awaits. The bottom table is the gateway to death. There's a lot going on here. A skull that laughs every time a ball is lost, another dragon presiding over a clutch of eggs, wandering mini demons, cocoons ready to explode with swarms of flies, it can get very busy, and also manic as the ball zips about smashing our infernal enemies back to hell.

Spicing up the game are the six bonus stages. Their completion changes the ball's colour blue, signifying a time limited point multiplier. But each mini-game is interesting in itself. Yes, they are all variations on using the ball to destroy stuff, but they're not mindless joypad bashers. The many headed dragon, the bat-filled vases, and beady-eyed skulls, these three affairs shouldn't give the novice player or pinball initiate many problems. It gets a touch tougher with the sorcerers. Finish them off and a major demon appears who requires strategic hits to exorcise. Round five offers a grave yard scene with malevolent spirits. Destroy them to light up all the LEDs on the board - it's easier said than done. And lastly, bonus stage six sets up a major confrontation with a huge headed-demon and his fire breathing abomination in a organic-flavoured hadesscape, replete with soothing organ music. It's a battle and a half.

These stages serve more than point accumulating affairs. Completing all six are necessary to purge the table of its diabolical influences. The table explodes, the score maxes out and the ball is transported to the throne room of the Devil himself. He nonchalantly sits on his throne as a couple of minions try their efforts. Once they're done, it's down to the beast himself. A few hits and he reverts to a more authentically Goaty countenance. Destroy him and the forces of darkness are banished back to the pit. Hurrah!

Dragon's Fury doesn't sound much on paper, and indeed it isn't. And yet the game is endlessly compelling. Highly rated at the time, it's one of them that's easy to pick up but difficult to master. The ball's physics are more or less spot on, and the action is always frenetic. There are no penalties for trapping it with a flipper, allowing for pauses for thinking about angles and direction. The graphics are truly excellent and complement the game well, and the sound is nicely appropriate. The main table tune, a nice slice of goth heavy synth, is among the best and most technically accomplished to have issued from the Mega Drive's sound chip. As the game was ported by noted shoot 'em up specialists Technosoft, entering OmakeBGM on the password screen followed by 01 (up to 05) replaces the main tune with a top track from another of their games. A nice touch.

Unfortunately, the digital devilry on offer proved too much for the censorious marketing department at Tengen, who published the game in Europe and North America. They changed the name to something more innocuous and boring. And the Satanic motifs were played down. All the pentagrams became five-pointed stars, and anything smacking of religious iconography was banished. For example, in the original the vase-smashing bonus stage originally featured coffins. A bit lame, but we can't risk upsetting the mid-west fundamentalists. Which is odd, considering the entirety of the game is about destroying demons and putting the boot into Beelzebub. Perhaps if the engine of their destruction was called the Christ ball it might have worked out.

Overall, Dragon's Fury fits perfectly on the Mega Drive. It's a pinball tour de force guaranteed to shake free the cobwebs and get the reflexes moving in no time. A perfect, if oft-overlooked tonic for Halloween video gaming.

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Friday 29 October 2021

Local Council By-Elections October 2021

This month saw 35,870 votes cast over 22 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Overall, six council seats changed hands. For comparison with September's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Oct 20

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There were two by-elections in Wales
*** There were two Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Bolton for Change (99), Communist Party of Britain (28), Reform UK (6), and TUSC (24, 76)

So much for a Labour recovery. Tell a lie, this month's by-elections were more skewed toward Tory and Liberal Democrat territory - it was never going to be a fantastic performance. Still, Labour - like the Tories - come out of October with the net result of the status quo. In fact, again this might be a straw in the wind, but the volatility we've seen in previous months of seats changing hands all over the place appears to have calmed down. Only six changing hands, it's positively snooze worthy.

Also missing this month was continuing evidence of the Green surge, who've performed well below the collective efforts of the Independents. Though they did enjoy some good results. Most notable was Wombourne in South Staffordshire where the Labour vote largely evaporated and the Greens came from nowhere to a close second to the Tories. With a heightened focus on environmental issues with COP26 and the Tory sewage scandal, if they don't do well in November when can they expect to do well? There's plenty of room for them next month - there are 30 contests to look forward to!

7th October
Flintshire, Penyffordd, Lab gain from Ind
Nottingham, St Ann's, Lab hold
Nottingham, Sherwood, Lab hold
Rushcliffe, Musters, LDem hold
Somerset, Comeytrowe and Trullm, LDem hold
Somerset West and Taunton, Wilton and Sherford, LDem hold
Waverley, Cranleigh East, LDem hold

14th October
Falkirk, Falkirk South, SNP gain from Lab
Harrow, Pinner South, Con hold
Surrey Heath, Frimley Green, Con gain from LDem
Wigan, Leigh West, Lab hold

21st October
Birmingham, Yardley East, LDem hold
Horsham, Forest, LDem hold
Newark and Sherwood, Rainworth South and Blidworth, Ind gain from Lab

28th October
Bolton, Bromley Cross, Con hold
Carlisle, Currock and Upperby, Lab gain from Oth
Luton, South, Lab hold
South Kesteven, Granthan Arnoldfield, Con hold
South Kesteven, Stamford All Saints, Ind gain from Con
South Staffordshire, Kinver, Con hold
South Staffordshire, Wombourne South East, Con hold
Wrexham, Gresford East and West, Con hold

Tuesday 26 October 2021

YouTube's Attack on Novara Media

Social media is the class war in cyberspace. Here are two dispatches from the battle front, one relatively major, the other almost insignificant, but both revealing in stark terms the unaccountable power overseeing our networks.

Flashpoint one: Without explanation, YouTube deleted Novara Media's channel. As their statement notes, Novara are a vital part of the news ecosystem in this country and cover stories and issues that the mainstream media pass by. They are also regulated by IMPRESS which, although voluntary, has more bite than the toothless Independent Press Standards Organisation which most of the papers are signed up to. Happily, the channel has been restored and, rightly, the comrades are demanding an explanation about how the decision to delete was arrived at and why it was rescinded. Also worth noting Novara received more rhetorical support from select right wingers than elements of the Labour Party, some of whom revelled in gloating.

Flashpoint two: Without explanation, a post on this place was unpublished for "violating community standards". I could understand if it was one of my increasingly exacerbated and uncomplimentary takes on Keir Starmer, but it wasn't. The article in question was a piece of pop sociology about buying Twitter followers that has been carried on this site for nearly eight years. And just like Novara, without warning or explanation it came back.

In both cases, it's likely the actions taken by Google's minion companies were algorithmic in character. Something about Novara's output triggered the bear trap of instant deletion. Mine probably was the rejection of a spam comment advertising, you guessed it, Twitter followers left on the post critiquing the absurd practice. But ultimately we do not know. Chances are the restoration of Novara's channel required human intervention. In my low level case, who the hell knows?

As if it needed demonstrating, private ownership of media infrastructure is incompatible with democratic principles. True, no one has to sign up to the platforms that increasingly dominate our lives, but they are crucial for the reproduction of personhood in advanced capitalist societies in the 21st century. Who goes online just to read websites any more? According to internet marketing outfit Global Web Index, some 57.6% of traffic is on the platforms, and this is only likely to increase with time. They provide the architecture for "free", and they ponce off the data avatars they construct from millions of people clicking and sharing this and that, up to and including the mining of content of posts and videos produced by us. It's capital at its most parasitic and cloyingly dependent on the social capacities of human beings. Therefore, in a way the platforms are indifferent to the character of content. Incel manifestos, paeans to Richard Whiteley, photos of dinner, selfies on the bus, it's all data to be harvested, processed, and used to sell targeted advertising. At this level there are no qualitative differences. It's digitised reductionism, of taking social relationships connecting through the interwebs and crunching them up to spread billions of profitable granules on the platforms' bottom line.

In response to criticisms and the arbitrary power they wield, most platforms have appeal functions and pretend concern for the health of democratic debate. But without any due process or independent oversight, it's piffle more often than not. As Novara have rightly observed, if they were smaller and didn't attract backing from across the political spectrum would they be back so quickly or stuck in limbo for longer? This underlines the perils of depending on these firms, he writes fully aware this site exists at Google's sufferance. Building leftist institutions to organise our politics must involve developing our own digital infrastructure so there's always something to fall back on if the plug gets pulled. The revolution won't be tweeted. And politically, every opportunity we get our movements need to push for the break up of social media ownership and platform democratisation. We need social media, and therefore we have to understand its political economy and have strategies not just for using it, but overcoming and absorbing it.

Monday 25 October 2021

Digging Labour's Grave

Commenting about politics, you can only write so much about one thing. 18 months into Keir Starmer's leadership of the Labour Party and we're at this point already. Say what you like about Ed Miliband and what he did in the first third of his time, he at least did things. He announced wonkish wheezes (remember One Nation?). Unlike the Starmerist albatross, he won elections more often than not. Eventually, painfully he got round to announcing policies - some of which were mildly social democratic and Labourist. And he opposed the Tories. The party was mired in soggy centrism and could not break from the triangulating wisdom of recent years, but it wasn't wearying. Leading circles weren't preoccupied with chasing off the party's depleted membership and leaving behind a rump of supplicants competing for recognition from the hallowed parliamentary elite. Starmer invites curses from all corners of the map for inspiring nostalgic feels about this insipid past.

These last two days underline, again, why Labour under Starmer is going nowhere. Asked by Richard Madeley about "fencing off" the "hard left" Corbynites on Good Morning Britain, Starmer bounced around like a blue-panted Action Man with darting eyes. "We changed the rules at Labour conference! We're taking action to bash the party into shape! We're not for chanting slogans but changing lives!" For a moment, he felt the imagined gaze of Peter Mandelson's "millions of voters" who cheered his attacks on party democracy, and a frisson of enthusiasm momentarily flashed through his countenance. Starmer, the man who values his haircut more than his politics has taken one thing from his close cohabitation with the Labour right: a genuine zeal for taking on his party's left wing.

Speaking of slogans, in the time of Starmer we still have them. Except shouting them and writing them on cardboard is so 20th and lefty, man. A professional outfit spends time thinking about message, graphic design, and putting it out where most of the media are - on Twitter. And today's effort? "Labour would tax fairly, spend wisely, and get the economy firing on all cylinders". What even is this trash? Instead of staring starry eyed at the New Labour documentary currently showing on BBC2, the "grown ups" would do better to look at the sorts of sloganeering His Blairness went for back in the day. It might have been vacuous, but they were simple and straightforward. They could fit on a podium, and easily connoted the vibes they wanted to convey. This was a lesson Labour under Corbyn learned, with its "Standing Up, Not Standing By" and "For the Many, Not the Few". Leftist in inspiration, populist in delivery, but sufficiently vague enough not to scare the horses. The only time Starmerism has blundered into pithy statements was last year's cloyingly desperate and unimaginatively blunt "A New Leadership".

And ending where this post began, there are more rumours, yes, more rumours that MPs, drunk with victory and looking to exclude Corbyn permanently from the parliamentary party, want the power to exclude recalcitrant rebels and prevent them from standing for Labour in the future. A measure, it's worth noting, that even Blair did not reach for - despite occasional dark mutterings in this direction. Starmer's stupid enough to cleave to it. But we go down that path and we are in Labour Party split territory. Hundreds of thousands of members with nowhere to go but the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, new left parties, community organising and protest movements. And with cash rich unions not likely to play bank of mum and dad to ungrateful offspring who take the money with one hand and push them away with the other, the PLP's hard right could get to play out their Change UK-adjacent fantasies. With the same end result.

Cynicism and stupidity interpenetrate one another with such intensity in Starmer's leadership it's impossible to even analytically separate the two. Passing up free shots at goal, like the Tory sewage scandal, the unmitigated disaster of Covid management, the food shortages, energy bill rises, and everything else the Tories are and aren't doing, it's almost as if each egregious failure is the government goading Keir Starmer into having a go. But the path to effective opposition means saying nothing. Yes, this complete failure to fulfil Starmer's constitutional duty demoralises and demobilises the Labour left. But simultaneously imperils the seats of many right wing Labour MPs, assuming they'd like to carry on being MPs. Likewise, treating those who stuck with the party in 2019 as the "wrong voters" is only going to benefit one outfit in contention, and that would be the Tories.

The Earth turns, the sun rises and sets, and Keir Starmer and his allies demonstrate their unfitness to lead the party of opposition into government. We've been here before and we'll be here again until the curtain falls on Starmerism, or on the Labour Party itself.

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Thursday 21 October 2021

Keir Starmer's Covid Failure

Some sensible remarks from Jonathan Ashworth. Masks should be mandated to reduce the spread of Covid, and sick pay uprated so the low paid can self-isolate if they come down with it. Who could disagree, apart from the Tories and the unhinged anti-mask brigade? Unfortunately for the shadow health secretary, Keir Starmer does. According to an unnamed spox (anonymity's always okay for some), Labour is "not in favour of moving to Plan B on Covid ... They are in favour of "making Plan A work". Very collegiate of dear Keir to leave a senior politician and the longest serving shadow minister with egg on his face.

What does this even mean? "Plan A" is what we have going on at the moment. I.e. next to no precautions, and a slow and steady slippage away from people taking the right measures to protect themselves. Just as Jonathan observes the decline in masking up in his train journeys from Leicester, I've seen the same thing on my commute. Those taking the necessary measures to protect others in enclosed spaces are getting fewer by the day as millions are lured into a false sense of security, despite the sky high infections. The question has to be begged, how can this "Plan A", which has the Tories putting a friendly arm around Covid's shoulders and encouraging it to go forth and multiply, "work"? Presumably Starmer doesn't want more illness and more deaths and would like to see rates of transmission come down, and with it hospitalisations and mortality, so how can a plan that requires the government to do nothing be corrected within its own terms? Does he want Boris Johnson to "get a grip" by recommending people wear masks, and ordering his MPs to make like the Labour benches in the Commons? We don't know, because Starmer elected to waste his Prime Minister's Questions by asking six questions about the Online Harms Bill. Just as Covid is raging.

Readers know I don't have time for Starmer. His mendacity and shocking depths of incompetence is serving up Labour's electoral chances on a platter. But politicians don't position themselves for no reason. Starmer's back-peddling on plan B has to have some thought behind it, so what is it? In the absence of anything but a terse line, we can surmise it's a reversion to the miserable line Starmer held on Covid from the moment he assumed office. Don't criticise the government, look constructive, appear supportive, refuse to offer an alternative. In other words, a strategy for political suicide. Johnson's dishonest criticisms of Starmer that say he's carping and playing games with the pandemic have left him off-balance, and instead of refuting them he panders to an imagined audience who believe the Prime Minister. Refusing to challenge has led to the situation we're in now: 140,000 dead by the government's own statistics, but the Tories running away with the politics.

Superficially, "making plan A work" is about buying permission for Labour to be heard, but by saying nothing what message are Tory wobblers and those contemplating not voting supposed to hear? All they see is an opposition not doing opposition, and at worst outright complicity between the two parties. And they're right to. Even before he became leader, Starmer gave a flavour of what his "scrutiny" of the Tories was going to look like. Compare this with the properly constructive opposition of his predecessor, who offered concrete proposals the government took up with alacrity - but naturally, without offering Jeremy Corbyn any credit. We're back at square one. The tentative criticisms are bundled up like a sack of spuds under the stairs, an Starmer refers to his pull-your-socks-up comfort zone. It would be comedic if the consequences weren't so horrifying.

Here, we often talk about how the Tories' coming problems with their voter coalition. Property owners - usually the natural Tory constituent - are not being created in the same numbers, and as the Tory core pass away they're not going to reproduce themselves like-for-like. What is building problems for the Tories is those of working age now, who already tend toward Labour, are getting hammered by cuts and, soon, tax rises. The Tories are doing their best to appear repulsive towards them. The problem is, as forecast here a long time ago, Starmer is doing the same job for his party. Without any pretence of sticking up for working people, the poor, those who need support, his pathetic failure to back our people as they put their health and their lives on the line is only going to put off those who might otherwise vote Labour. He's disassembling the party's own natural constituency with nothing to show for it. Not even Tory voters impressed by his desperate efforts to appear safe and Conservative-lite to them.

Boris Johnson has let the virus rip and condemned tens of thousands to a premature death. Starmer's crime is nowhere near as grave, but he's trying his damnedest to ensure Coronavirus kills the Labour Party.

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Wednesday 20 October 2021

Depoliticising the Covid Crisis

The link between infections, hospitalisations, and deaths are weakening. But not broken. This essential truth of the pandemic Sajid Javid was prepared to accept at Wednesday's press conference. He has determined nearly 50,000 infections, who knows how many long Covid cases, and somewhere between 150-200 people dying every day is a price worth paying so Conservative politicians can go about their business without wearing face masks. And so there are no circuit breaker lockdowns in our future, no mask mandates or social distancing, just a recommendation through gritted teeth that we might think about wearing face coverings, particularly when we're with people they don't know. Because Coronavirus has a track record of good manners and refusing to pass from a host to their families and friends.

We've had many occasions to talk about Tory recklessness. But there comes a point, one well passed by this worst government of modern times, where we have to talk about social murder. The Tories' refusal to push the most elementary precautions that are depressing infections and deaths overseas can only lead to this conclusion. As they stress in every briefing and television appearance, they're "monitoring the numbers" and listening to "the science". If the latter is the case, you've got to ask what kind of chief medical officer is chillaxed about a thousand Covid deaths a week. One, I might suggest, who doesn't take the Hippocratic Oath that seriously.

Sajid Javid was and is the worst possible health secretary appointment at the worst possible time. Worse than Matt Hancock, if you can believe that, and so terrible that Jeremy Hunt has become something of a pin up for the Ian Dunts of this world. His refusal to lift a finger is unconscionable, but not without political purposes. Johnson's Tories have gone from "fuck business" to treating the economy as if it's the be-all and end-all (how well an economy can chug along with mass Covid, absenteeism is something we'll find out soon enough) but this is a thinly-disguised excuse. One sure to spin gullible fools into a tiz thinking the Tories are mistaken, complacent, misinformed, but acting out of honestly-held ideological beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The government's refusal to protect the population is an outcome of championing the class interests the Tories articulate, protect, and prosecute. And while keeping things circulating, like rents to landlords and the buoyant property market, their necropolitics - how they are managing the question of who lives and dies - has the effect of serving Tory politics. The first is individuation and atomisation. We hear a lot about how Johnson's Tories represent a break with neoliberal economics. Perhaps so if the departure point is the state's relation to markets and its role as a guarantor of last resort versus active participant, as per the typical picture of post-war corporatism in West European states. But the picture is more complex when you get into the guts of "Johnsonism". Big capital spending, talk of infrastructure renewal, but the same mean-spirited attacks on the poorest and beggar-thy-neighbour divide-and-ruleism. Neoliberal economics, commonly conceived, are gone but neoliberal governance is alive and well and central to contemporary Tory politics.

This applies to Covid precautions too. Placing virus avoidance on individual shoulders, a positive test and its consequences are either their sole responsibility, or a matter of complete accident. The government had nothing to do with it. It means if someone contracts the disease, they're going to blame the maskless others who coughed and spluttered when they were nearby, or themselves for not taking the precaution of protecting themselves. Blame is entirely depoliticised. Meanwhile the Conservative-supporting core, sat at home and in a better position to manage their exposure, find handy scapegoats to point the finger at. Such is the Tory way: the party and its politicians are endlessly inventive in coming up with ways of dividing people up, all the better to undermine possibilities and potentials for collective action and opposition. And the beauty, from the government's point of view, is how the official opposition in the Commons and in the liberal/Labour-loyal press are completely blind to it. This conscious, deliberate governance strategy scoots right under the radar, and doesn't even figure in any mainstream framing of politics.

The second is an ostentatious, but equally depoliticised display of reduced state capacity. This is consistent with Tory social policy generally. The message Rishi Sunak gave at party conference was don't expect the government to help you, and to underline the point it's taking £1,000/year off the poorest and lowest paid and saddling everyone else with tax increases. Just as inflation ticks upwards too. The Tories washing their hands of responsibility for mandating Coronavirus precautions is part of the same piece. It blends into the mood music of you're on your own, don't expect anything from or place any demands on the state. Responsibility is yours and yours alone, be it health, wellbeing, or how you make your living. Pushing down the popular perception of state responsibility is another conscious effort at restricting the political horizon, making any project of social reform, even relatively meagre ones appear out of bounds. Saying nothing and resisting the right to recommend nothing is as calculated as any overt attack, and aims at shifting politics to the right.

Annoyingly, this has worked so far. From the off the necropolitics of the crisis were as clear as day, and over 18 months on they've worked a treat. The Tories are in the lead, its voter coalition are largely untouched, the opposition haven't contested their framing of the issue, and so it goes on. Their pandemic management has been disastrous, but their political handling, from the point of view of Tory standing, is an unmitigated success. And for this to continue, the Johnsons and Javids, the Goves, Raabs, and Sunaks are very happy for hundreds of other people per week to carry on paying the ultimate price.

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Monday 18 October 2021

Mourning as Tawdry Self-Interest

I can't think of a Member of Parliament less suited to deliver a lecture on decency in public life than Mark Francois, but such is the state of politics in 2021. Speaking in the Commons this afternoon as MPs paid tribute to David Amess, he argued we - as in honourable members - must clampdown on social media thanks to their "toxic" character that sees public figures "systematically vilified". I think the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford forgot he might have an interest to declare.

One thing has united both sides of the House since Amess's murder, and that's shameless opportunism. As noted on Friday, Chris Bryant was first out the gate calling for an end to social media anonymity. Despite there being zero suggestion that back and forth on Twitter and Facebook, our MPs' platforms of choice, have any bearing on this case. But never let a crisis go to waste. If there are opportunities for politicians to hold the public to account as opposed to facilitating the reverse, they'll take it.

Consider Francois's miserable contribution. Having the chutzpah to promote social media curbs as "David's Law", he attacked the CEOs for their "inaction", implying the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey are somehow responsible for what happened to his colleague. He said,
So let’s put, if I may be so presumptuous, David’s law onto the statute book, the essence of which would be that while people in public life must remain open to legitimate criticism, they can no longer be vilified or their families subject to the most horrendous abuse, especially from people who hide behind a cloak of anonymity with the connivance of the social media companies for profit.
Pretty gross, but MPs are pushing at an open door. According to polling data from July, 78% of punters believe anonymous accounts should not be allowed, with either one's identity displayed on a profile or at least disclosed to the operating platform. Unsurprisingly there's a clear age gradient to the numbers, with those least likely to be on or understand social media most enthusiastic about the measure while those using it the most, i.e. the young, are much less keen. Despite them being many more times, and particularly for young women, likely to be on the receiving end of the abuse and anonymous trolling Francois was wailing about.

How serious are MPs about be-kind-online provisions? They've shown no interest in the hate the press stir up. We're not necessarily talking about the hit jobs done on usual suspect leftwing MPs, above all Jeremy Corbyn, for example. But others too who've earned the Tory papers' ire, such as erstwhile Conservative MPs. This, as even the dogs in the street know, is nothing compared to the violent language and hate stirred up against the usual tabloid targets and scapegoats: single mums, black people, the unemployed, Muslims, travellers, refugees, trans people. Entirely coincidentally, according to Jim Waterson the press have negotiated an opt out from the forthcoming Tory Online Harms Bill, ensuring their anonymous contributors to comments aren't governed by the same provisions. Of course they have. And yet with galloping LGBTQ hate crime stats against a backdrop of vilification of trans people and their allies, it's rare to see concerns voiced about the linkage between press hate and violence on the green benches. Particularly on the government's side.

We should have no shame for saying what this is. MPs, including the self-declared "best friend" of the deceased, are using a murder of one of their own to build a head of steam for more authoritarian legislation. If passed it won't curb abuse, most of which comes from easily identifiable accounts anyway, but it will drive marginalised people who have very good reasons to conceal their identities - a point so obvious that even Labour are making it. But what it will do is increase the costs of social media doing business while protecting the press - among the Tories' chief institutional supports - from the same standards. In other words, it's a move designed to attack the free-floating exchange of ideas, opinion, and yes fruity language and sharp irreverence they (rightly) believe is undermining their foundations, and buttress those who buttress them 90% of the time. For all the talk of propriety and respect, there's few things more disrespectful than exploiting a murdered MP for tawdry self-interest.

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Saturday 16 October 2021

Meet the New Left Challengers ...

... Same as the Old Left Challengers? It was inevitable some of the left were going to decamp from the Labour Party with Keir Starmer's election as leader. But to do what? That was always the interesting question, and now it has a clear answer. Since Corbynism's defeat and the tightening of thumb screws on the left who've remained, several new left parties have come into existence. The best known and attracting the lion's share of media interest is the Northern Independence Party, but it is far from alone. The Breakthrough Party, self-identifying as a youth-led democratic socialist party, stood its first candidate in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Joining it one would find the Harmony Party, the BLM-linked Take the Initiative Party, and Chris Williamson's Resistance Movement, which happened to hold a festival in Nottingham this Saturday.

Political science ain't rocket science, and you don't need to hold a professorial chair in politics to understand why this is happening. Frustrated hopes, defeat, and the double whammy of an incompetent, right wing Labour leadership with the hapless politics to match call political consequences into being. The main question is whether there's a space for these new parties to make a go of it?

This was the subject of a joint public meeting hosted by NIP, BTP, and our old friends Left Unity. The subject? What the parties are about and what they're going to do. Chaired by Thelma Walker who stood for NIP in Hartlepool, she rightly identified there's a political vaccuum existing on the left, but how's it going to be filled?

The first contribution was from Joe Skeaping of BTP. He argued politics was geared toward older people, and therefore the new party wanted to address youngsters as they're at the sharp end of multiple crises - rents, lack of propery, precarious work, large debts, problems with the police, and the looming spectre of climate disaster. Despite billing itself "youth-led", BTP is not an exclusivist organisation and membership is open to all ages. The new party is a work-on-progress as it builds its policy platform, but already it claims "hundreds of members" and "thousands of supporters". Its immediate focus is on video content to articulate the urgency of the moment and get the party's name out there, but it is more than a Twitter pop-up. It attends demos as a party, has its first elected representative (Samantha Cooper, a town councillor in Bradford) and contested Chesham and Amersham from a standing start. Joe said the party hopes to deepen its electoral work by building support in targeted constituencies, and is planning on having a BTP presence at COP26. In a welcome break from the usual sectarianism, Joe said the party's core focus wasn't just on building Breakthrough but the wider movement too.

Speaking for Left Unity, Kate Hudson said LU was founded in 2013 because Labour had moved too far to the right. In office it embraced neoliberalism, failed to restore trade union rights and renationalise what the Tories sold off to their cronies. LU also saw itself as an expicitly internationalist party and aligned itself with the European radical left, like Greece's Syriza and Podemos in Spain. Before 2015 the party only took modest steps forward, but Corbynism saw most of its membership move into the Labour Party. LU persisted because even if the Corbynist revolution in Labour had become permanent (if only), there would still be need for a radical left party. This is because different perspectives on the left should be valued and Labour's history and policies are problematic. For example, the party of the NHS and the welfare state was, at the same time, the party of the atom bomb, NATO, and the Partition of India. Anti-imperialism needs political expression too. Therefore, it's time to stop hoping Labour will be a useful vehicle and the left should be building something new - though the left outside should be open to cooperation with left the in Labour while remembering we're all on the same side.

The founder of NIP, Philip Proudfoot, went next. He asked what was the future of the left? For starters, it had to ask constitutional questions and offer a vision beyond the UK itself. He roboustly defended why NIP are a separatist party, saying this was because the UK isn't a normal country: it's over-centralised with the sorts of unevenness and inequality one would expect from a state recovering from civil conflict. London parliamentary parties are the root of these disparaties, and so the left needs to take up these centre/periphery grievances lest centrists like Andy Burnham does, who'll only use it to ride to power without substantially addressing the problems. Likewise, there are regional disparities between the working class in different corners of these isands, and therefore requires different political responses. Touching on what has been built so far, Philip said the party has thousands of members all across northern England, is currently establishing branch structures, has (finally) properly registered with the Electoral Commission and is and ready to contest elections.

Coming in at the end, Thelma Walker talked about what the next steps are going to be. She identified an opportunity with existing non-voters, noting the low turnouts at the last three parliamentary by-elections. Many of them don't vote out of apathy, rather its a political passivity born of anger and frustration. What then are they going to do about it? The parties have to engage with those who believe no one's sticking up for them, offer policies that improve their lives, and work to turn them out at election time. The second opportunity is the break up of Britain. The SNP and Green pact in Scotland and could see it replicated across the country as they make a success of devolved administration, while Boris Johnson works at stalling a referendum and Labour cling to the union to preserve its junior position in the Westminster duopoly. When Scotland breaks free, Wales and Northern Ireland will too and this opens opportunities for NIP. But in the immediate term those outside of Labour have to organise and build an alliance on the left. Therefore, it's not just BTP targeting constituencies but all three parties are with an informal agreement to support each other, and avoid clashes.

This place is an old hand when it comes to commenting on the far left, so does this new alliance of new parties stand a chance under First Past the Post? Unike the delusional nonsense and official optimism from the established far left, at the very least none of these parties are pretending the mountains they face are gentle gradients. Philip is fond of using the example of UKIP who were able to sucessfully menace the Tories to achieve its policy objective, despite doing consistently poorly at general election time (at least in seat terms). He said they were able to leverage by-elections and turn them into publicity victories, something the new parties could do too. I'm a bit more sceptical. It wasn't mid-term Westminster contests that powered UKIP, but rather the five yearly cycle of EU elections. Fought on the basis of PR, they pulled in the anti-political establishment protest vote as well as right wing discontent. They ensured its leading figures a platform, Nigel Farage particularly, and gave them an institutional base and resource from which to strike. Additionally, they had sympathetic media on their side. The Daily Express in particular, now the most slavish of Johnson supporting titles, happily amplified UKIP's messaging and therefore ensured they were a constituency of opinion broadcast journalism had to take seriously. For obvious reasons, this is not open to any of our three new parties and so they've got to find their own way to impinge on mainstream politics. Hence where a strong record of activism outside of elections would come in handy, and why they're prioritising them.

As I've argued previously, it's not just that there's a "left space" going unfilled but thanks to Starmer's stupidity, his disassembling of the Corbynist voter coalition is seeing chunks of that support drift away. More might if these parties are able to make a splash. The rising working class are there, not going anywhere, and are only getting larger over time. But the question of treating with others who already inhabit the left-of-Labour space can't be ducked, either. In Batley and Spen, George Galloway performed very credibly, showing there is space for what we might very generously call left populism. But the issue is how does the three-party alliance deal with him, especially given his recent adventures in voting Tory, the crass pro-UK constitional politics, and the downright scabby positions his Workers Party of Britain fan club have on women's equality and LGBTQ issues? Likewise, the Socialist Party's Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has contested elections for nearly 12 years without any success. If they want to maximise socialist votes, then an understanding should be sought from them.

However, the three-party alliance does have some advantages that TUSC lacks. In the first place, the SP has an antiquated conception of class, which has fed into a strategy that, at best, has seen them tread water for the last decade and left them unable to comprehend Corbynism and its eruption in the Labour Party. Second, the SP is utterly focused on building the SP. There are no other considerations, which has meant TUSC challenges are haphazard, sporadic, and amateurish. There is no consistency in working an area, and because it is less than the sum of its parts there's nothing to build even if TUSC worked a seat over time. NIP, BTP, and LU aren't beholden to this approach and therefore enter the fray without these impediments.

The best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour, and leftwing splits from and alternatives to Labour have never fared well. It's taken 40 years for the Greens to start looking tricky in some circumstances. Can a renewed LU with NIP and BTP break with electoral history? The smart money would say no, but then again the smart people are set on driving Labour into the ground, taking the votes of millions for granted and others left up for grabs, so who can say? If the parties put their efforts into targeted localities, standing paper candidates far and wide, getting their banners seen on demonstrations, supporting high profile campaigns, and generating their own buzz via social media, there is an outside chance they could do better than any other left challenge of the last 20 years has managed to. But it is a hard road and the odds are stacked against them.