Friday 31 December 2021

Top Ten Dance Songs 2021

Time for this most cherished tradition: the year end review of the hottest tunes. For those reading unfamiliar with contemporary fashions in electronic music set to repetitive beats, some schooling with last year's list and the greatest songs of the 2010s is in order. With the necessary context supplied, let's get down to brass tacks: I've never had as much trouble whittling the list down to 10. The kibosh Covid put on touring has seen artists, DJs, and producers spend more time in the studio, and it shows. Undoubtedly I'll be discovering good stuff I've missed this year for years to come, but those I did espy but didn't make the year-end list deserve acknowledgement. The heart of this place is generous, so let's hear from those who just missed out.

We begin with Forever by Tommy Farrow feat. Clementine Douglas, a cool customer that stood out not just because it's good, but because it didn't sound like anything else. Everlight feat. Emma Chatt's Obelisk is one of the year's filthiest cuts, and was a welcome EBM-adjacent tech trance intrusion in an otherwise sleepy episode of A State of Trance. Well done Ruben for sneaking this monster on when the boss wasn't looking. While we're feeling creepy/sinister, Revision by Maceo Plex and Program 2 feat. Giovanni is the best Depeche Mode/Sarah McLachlan collab never released. A masterpiece and, a rarity these days, a great video! gardenstate and GVN's Take Me There has featured on the blog previously and shouldn't need an introduction to anyone who regularly hits the play button. Don't worry, this isn't the last time you'll hear from them in this post. And last is the sunshine friendly Girlfriend from Kryder and B Jones, a ditty that would not have been out of place in the clubs and on the beaches 20 years ago.

That's some serious quality left out in the cold. The top ten had better be good. And, pleasingly, it is.

10. Ferry Corsten and Ruben De Ronde, Bloodstream

The flat Ben Gold mix gets all the plaudits and I have no idea why. Everything that is unique and special about the track is there in the vanilla cut. Ruben's underrated talent has meshed well with Ferry's polymath crazy skills to produce a cool, clean but not-too-deep prog house track. In their blurb they claim this was 80s inspired and came out while they were messing in the studio, but it's neither a cringing lurch into synthwave or a mess. Its composition is tight and packs a mighty punch. Enough to get the bloodstream racing, you might say.

9. The Chemical Brothers, The Darkness That You Fear

Nostalgia distilled. The video is a collage from 90s rave footage, but the sounds are not anything you'd have heard in between Love Decade, Altern8, and Bizarre Inc. What you will find here is a heavy interlacing of early Avalanches with traces of Doves. Darkness wants to turf you out into the light, arms stretched, blinded, free. Released last spring, it is suffused with the warmth of slow rising temperatures and an end-of-lockdown vibe. Exceptional, and it shows the Chemicals are far from over the hill.

8. Joy Crookes, Feet Don't Fail Me Now (Paul Woolford Remix)

The first of three remixes on the list, Joy Crookes's original was already excellent but this club-friendly makeover pushes Feet over the edge of greatness. One of those tunes that gets better with every listen. Slick (if not sick) production and a nudge up tempo, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was the original - it's enough to make you want to visit all of Joy's back catalogue and when you've had your fill plead with Paul for more reworks. This is remixing at its most accomplished and demands wider recognition.

7. Ilan Bluestone feat. Ellen Smith, Stranger to Your Love

Ellen's soft vocal is the heavenly match to Ilan's on point production. Overlooked in favour of the unexceptionally generic trance of the Stoneblue mix, it just doesn't work as an upbeat, uplifting cut. But it doesn't need to. If it ain't broken .... Unadorned Stranger is another sparkling starchild of 2021's house/trance crossover, a melancholic monster whose affects push the mood away from a lamentation over loves lost and into an elated contemplation of what is a near perfect composition.

6. DIM3NSION and DJ Nano, Mistake

The first unapologetic representative of your host's genre of choice, year end favourite DIM3NSION with DJ Nano have shown there's life in the old trance dog yet. Moving away from the late 90s sound just as unimaginative producers are flocking toward it, they've reached deeper into the pockets of Old Father Time. Mistake is a cranked up chip tune with serious reverb, tunefully resonating out the rhythms of the bubble jet printer, the loading screeches from the tape deck and dial up connection, and the bassline hammering of the keyboard. This is how retro should be done.

5. Tom Staar and Ferry Corsten feat. Darla Jade, Glow

Do words exist to convey the masterful qualities of this seamless techno/trance hybrid? Our lord System F effortlessly showcases his restless ingenuity with the genre he's done more to shape than anyone, while bringing to the fore Tom's talents - which caught attention with his rework of Punk. This meeting of minds has surpassed their first, distanced encounter in what is destined to be one of the greatest electronic pieces of the 2020s. Darla's haunting vocal, the downbeat lyrics married to uplifting waves and breaking crescendos points trance to a future that does not involve a permanent, diminishing rehashing of its glorious past.

4. Beyond Border, What Makes The World Go Round

I am a complete sucker for poppy EBM (Frozen Plasma, NamNamBulu), and World stands very much in this proud tradition. Pretty meaningless but optimistic change-the-world lyrics and a sublime melody makes for an uplifting experience - please don't stop trying to make euphoric Future Pop a thing. Scrape away the flashes of dark electronica and standing revealed is a bop-happy goth disco floor filler. It is high time the genre got wider props and though World is not a breakthrough hit, it very much deserves to be.

3. gardenstate, Gjon's Tears, Repondez Moi

Shit me, a Eurovision song in the top 10? Gjon's Tears made third place in this year's contest with their unusual power ballad, but in the hands of gardenstate it has transcended the confines of the world's greatest song competition and landed in the same spot on this list. Trancey breakbeats and a soaring male vocal make unlikely bedfellows, but here they snook under the covers and produced a heaving, passionate classic. A fist sized gem of a song which, again, fuses a melancholic aspect with melodramatic euphoria, if this is the shape of gardenstate things to come we are truly blessed.

2. Stoneface and Terminal, Moonscape

There's been a minor eruption of space themed trance this year, with notable contributions from Darren Tate and Armin Van Buuren X Jorn Van Deynhoven, but none of them are close to this magisterial masterpiece. Our most dynamic of duos have been around for years, and in Moonscape S+T have distilled the purest essences of trance into a signature tune they'll be forced to play for years to come. The extended mix is the best way to appreciate this peerless track, and will have you bouncing over craters and kicking up lunar dust in no time. Just incredible.

1. Sian Evans, Hide U (Tinlicker Remix)

Finally getting a release this year, invariably remixes and reworkings of old tunes fall flat. But I'm happy to report this latter day collab between Sian and the Tinlicker boys doesn't just do the Kosheen original justice, but improves on it in every conceivable way. The monotone juggernaut of the early 00s classic is turned inside out, becoming its opposite. Sian's baritone vocal is the ideal foil for something unexpectedly joyous, making the Queen of Welsh DnB the Empress of this year's creme de la creme.

And there we have the top 10 of the year, some of whom will undoubtedly be in the running for track of the decade. What were your songs of the year, and are there any electronic tunes this list criminally overlooked?

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The Most Read 20 of 2021

Another year, another terrible year thanks to Covid-19. Lockdowns, restrictions, not seeing people, long-term illness, and unexpected and premature deaths. 2021 is not one likely to be remembered with fondness, but politically? Now we're talking. The start of the year saw the parties level pegging, and in short order Labour's numbers fell off a cliff while Johnson, despite his overt corruption and light mindedness soared upwards again. "It's the vaccine bounce", they said, without looking at Keir Starmer's contribution to this dismal state of affairs. And then, late in the summer, the Tories suffered one self-inflicted wound after another. The Afghanistan implosion, the National Insurance increases, cutting Universal Credit, they compromised the foundations of Tory support ahead of Johnson's Christmas collapse. First, the earth shaking rumblings of the Owen Paterson affair. And then in short order the cave in of the Xmas party scandals. It's been painful to watch, but finally we're there. Johnson's own hubris has laid him low, all without Labour laying a glove on him.

Who knows what the next year has in store, but turning our heads back to the immediate past have the most read posts of the year. Perhaps you wanted an explanation for why Starmer is so awful, or what strategic genius informs his and LOTO's thoughts. Maybe you can't get enough of Labour-on-Labour factional action. Perhaps you like my obsession with the Tory party (have you heard I have a book out?), or just find the relentless pushing of 21st century class politics refreshing. Whatever the case, thank you very much for clicking and reading.

1. One Abysmal Year of Keir
2. The Tory Food Parcel Scam
3. On Labour's Poll Collapse
4. Why Labour Isn't Serious About Winning
5. A Note on Ruthlessness
6. Margaret Hodge's Attack on Unite
7. Boris Johnson and Thatcherism
8. The Right Wing Defence of Starmerism
9. Why Isn't Keir Starmer 20 Points Ahead?
10. Starmerism and Fabianism
11. Covid Is Killing Britons Faster than WWII
12. 10 Points on Trump's Attempted Coup
13. The Uses of Captain Tom
14. Keir Starmer's Pathetic Witch Hunt
15. The Green Threat to Labour
16. A Sociology of Tory Covid Short-Termism
17. The Appeal of Jess Phillips
18. Why Boris Johnson is Teflon
19. 10 Points on the 6th May Massacre
20. A Party for Management Consultants

Any posts that aren't on the list but deserve to be? This on the Tory anti-maskers is worth a shout. There's this wee piece on the two types of capitalist realism. And for a triumvirate of second chancers, this on deceleration deserves some time. Perhaps I should do more theory pieces in 2022. But then again, there is the second book to work towards. We'll see what free time the fates deal us.

Unfortunately, we did unexpectedly lose some people along the way in 2021. Ed Rooksby passed away in February from complications arising from long Covid, and Dawn Foster was also suddenly taken from us in early summer. A pair of outstanding comrades struck down in their prime and with so much more to give. No matter how hard it gets, may their memory inspire us to keep at it.

Thursday 30 December 2021

Labour's Authenticity Problem

Labour has internalised an authenticity problem. Without getting into the genealogical guts of the difficulty, the Tories - the party of privilege and unearned income - has made political hay from Labour being the party of out-of-touch elites. During the Blair and Brown years, the left outside of Labour made the same charge. Something Blue Labour took up when it emerged as a semi-coherent trend among, ironically, a Westminster-centric cadre of wonks, advisors, and MPs. And when Jeremy Corbyn was leader, right wingers and Blairites, people not known for caring about working class aspirations and interests, started wielding it as a factional weapon against the left. Now the right are back in charge they have to address the contrivance they've expended so much political capital and effort building up. After all, the front bench presently constituted is as middle class metro you can get. How to persuade the punters the chief paragons of Starmerism, despite their briefcase carrying countenances, are just like them?

The flags and nostalgia nods are subtle shuffles toward authenticity. And so is the parading of opposition politicians' biographies. Keir Starmer talks a lot about how his dad worked around the clock as a working class factory man, while being sketchy about how he was a sole trader and the "factory" was a workshop. Our long-time friend Wes Streeting is often invited to talk about his journey from a single parent upbringing to Labour's front bench. Jonathan Ashworth has spoken many times about his upbringing and how it was blighted by parental alcoholism. And Bridget Phillipson has lately discussed her childhood as the daughter of a single mum living in a council flat.

But there is a problem. Growing up in a council property has become a favoured marker of keeping it real among Westminster and media circles, but is it one that can connect? Former Corbyn aide Steve Howell suggests not. With millions of people, particularly the young, caught in the rent trap the experience of a secure, subsidised tenancy is unknown to them. In fact, with people breaking their backs and putting themselves in harm's way to make the rent it comes across as a relatively privileged and lucky existence.

Yet, while this layer of the working class are, or should be, Labour's natural support the leadership's authenticity offensive is not geared toward them. Among Starmerism's many weaknesses is a strategic orientation targeting the older, home-owning and largely retired vote that have peeled away from the party these last 15 years. Nothing wrong with that per se, especially if one's policy platform is based around the appreciation of the interests young and old share in common. But Starmerism is not doing this. For all its formal repudiation of the so-called culture wars, Starmer and friends are peddling a low-fi cultural politics to try and win them back. The lick of Blue Labour paint is one pillar of this strategy, and the affected humility of their humble origins the other. Among the punters they want to recapture, council housing is redolent of authentic working class communities where everyone knew everyone. Their lot in life was modest, but the riches of place and belonging more than made up for it. The showcasing of shadcab biographies is another note added to Labour's background music, a spectrum of subtle, preparatory melodies before the leadership start playing (what they hope will be) an election-winning symphony.

Now in the most comfortable position Labour has been under Starmer's leadership, these soft, human interest stories aren't going to do any harm. I think having the likes of Phillipson talking about life on free school dinners aren't about to put anyone off, nor would growing up in a council property. Having stories filling up the press about how authentic leading Labour MPs are is good optics as far as LOTO are concerned. But what can and, judging by the polls, is turning off people the party must keep on board are the continually stressed socially conservative themes and the studied refusal to articulate the aspirations of the new Labour base versus the powerful vested interests Starmer has spent his leadership courting. Generation rent don't have council properties but, politically speaking, there are plenty of other homes available.

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Tuesday 28 December 2021

Critiquing the Anti-Lockdown Left

We've dealt with the grifters. The Tory-friends-of-Covid were looked at. But there's another group that have set their face against pandemic precautions, particularly social distancing, restrictions on movement, closures of services and amenities - particularly hospitality - and quarantine measures. People who, politically speaking, are otherwise sound. For ease of short hand, I'm referring to the anti-lockdown left. This group of comrades, which tend to be London-based, very online, but, politically speaking, otherwise heterodox are critical of Covid precautions that require more than mask wearing. That vaccines are rolling out and large numbers are triple jabbed renders curbs on social mixing obsolete. Not ones to cheer on Boris Johnson, undoubtedly his decision to avoid reimposing new requirements ahead of New Year's Eve was welcome to them.

Different comrades emphasise different points. For some, young people welcoming in 2022 are probably going to be taking greater risks than contracting Covid. Others suggest calling for more precautions is indicative of middle class privilege, as the expectation is still on working class people to bring them their supermarket deliveries and Amazon orders. Meanwhile, independent SAGE - who've done a pretty good job of pushing the science around Covid and the measures required to curb it - is elided with an ideological state apparatus suggesting its "function" is social control. Others criticised the Tories bringing in travel bans and red listing. We've seen comrades claiming that high transmission rates don't matter. Others have bristled at Covid-inspired inroads into civil liberties, while praising successful containment strategies in "socialist" countries like China, Vietnam, and Cuba - policies much more restrictive than anything seen in the UK. And the comrades over at The Popular Pod have just released a series looking specifically at the harms of lockdowns.

What follows is not about point scoring or narcissistic posturing, but trying to come to grips with a trend on the left, its roots, trajectory, and political fall out. As such, it's neither total nor complete nor comprehensive. It sets out not to denounce and attack but persuade.

Let there not be any doubt, after almost two years the use of lockdowns and travel restrictions are a policy failure. The Tories have had ample opportunity to enforce mask mandates to stymie the spread of infection. They could have installed air purifiers in schools and clinical settings, made grants (or, knowing Sunak, loans) for businesses and public sector agencies to install filtration systems in their buildings. Manufacturing capacity could have been expanded to make FFP2 and FFP3 masks and distributed for free. The Tories could have introduced better sick pay, so workers didn't have to choose between their incomes and their health. Instead, their class politics were (and still are) in the driving seat. Johnson's might be an authoritarian project, but his Covid management has been a stop-start cycle of freedoms and restrictions, making future reasonable precautions against surging infections politically and socially difficult to implement. Unfortunately, what has been largely absent is a class analysis on the part of the left, despite providing many of the key policies the Tories co-opted into their pandemic governance. Keir Starmer has proven dreadful and failed to rise to the occasion, whereas other MPs have made the right calls on sick pay, furlough, and Universal Credit this was not incorporated into a joined up analysis that makes sense of where the Tories have crashed and burned, but have also, almost surreptitiously, succeeded.

The beginning of the Coronavirus crisis in March 2020 threatened to open politics up. Under Johnson and before him, Theresa May, the Tories were moving away from the austerity economics the government had pushed the previous half-decade. The massive stimulus such as the job retention scheme, the grants and the loans, and the uprating of social security reminded us that British capitalism is underwritten by the state. For a brief period Sunak superficially had more in common with Gosplan bureaucrats than his pantheon of free market saints. What was particularly worrisome from the standpoint of Tory economics was the challenge Covid posed governance. To put it plainly, the project of different governments has been the naturalisation of the entrepreneurial outlook so it is spontaneous and unquestioning. This cultivation was and is conscious and fully intended by policy makers, even if it was badged as "consumer choice" or "driving up standards". It's now the case practically all public institutions relate to us as bearers of this neoliberal subjectivity, and are in turn governed by metrics that more or less stand in for customer satisfaction. The advantage of promoting these modes of governance in the state's institutions, according to John Major who enthusiastically restructured the civil service along these lines, was that employees, service users, and the agencies themselves would autonomously and more efficiently deliver their "products" than administrative instruction. For all the trumpeting of levelling up and the tacit acknowledgement of market failure, Johnson's "modernisation" is premised upon leaving these strategies of governance intact. And why not? It individuates and atomises, encourages people to look to their own economic, cultural, and social capital, and failure, however that is defined, is a matter of bad luck or insufficient effort or ability. It inculcates an outlook that treats capitalism as the inescapable and normative horizon of social life.

Public health strategies for mitigating Covid cut against these neoliberal logics. The move to homeworking on the part of millions of workers, and the abeyance of work for the furloughed caused sleepless nights on the Tory benches. Management surveillance of performance was always the reality of the self-activating, entrepreneurial worker - hence the government's oft-noted keenness to get workers back at work. But on the more subtle level, Covid mitigation reorients the axis of responsibility. Early in the pandemic, it became common knowledge that masking up wasn't fantastic for preventing one from contracting the virus, but what it did do was prevent the spread of infected droplets. In other words, instead of the onus being on protecting oneself from infection we had a duty to protect others, especially given the prevalence of asymptomatic spread. All of a sudden, the responsible citizen in the age of Covid went from the self-interested and self-regarding individual to being a potential vector in a web of contagion. Our actions were not about risks to ourselves, but risk to others. I was responsible for the health of acquaintances, colleagues, friends, family, etc. and they were responsible for my continued good health too. Covid communitarianism meant those who were clinically vulnerable and/or could not have the vaccine for whatever reason were acknowledged, and that the public health of the group was the guarantee for the public health of the individual.

It's not difficult to see how a solidaristic Covid citizenship poses neoliberal governance and with it the class relations they support a danger. You can have a serious pandemic strategy that puts saving lives first, or a haphazard approach that buttresses the wage relation, rentier and debt relationships, and social security conditionality. Far from being the dictatorial overlords of a NHS-state with Tory characteristics, Johnson's government have gone out of their way to undermine lockdowns and any other mitigation measures. The Autumn and Winter 2020-21 lockdowns were nowhere near as stringent as the first, and the progressive relaxing of precautions, culminating in July's absurd "Freedom Day" and the end of furlough and the UC uplift, progressively shifted the pendulum away from communitarianism. Covid was now a matter of individual self-responsibility, and contracting it was a case of rotten luck or risky behaviour. Why else resist even the most elementary of precautions, namely masking up on public transport, shops, and indoor communal areas? It had nothing to do with loving freedom and liberty, and everything to do with resetting the governance underpinning class relations after the pandemic's initial shock.

The problem with the anti-lockdown left's "critique" of Covid precautions is its fidelity to the state's effort at returning things back to normal. Recommending comrades look to their own individual risk profiles is the advice Johnson, Javid, and the grim coterie of Tory backbenchers are proffering. They make exactly the same arguments about young people having their youth robbed from them, their new-found concern for mental health if people can't socialise, and the tough time businesses and workers in hospitality are facing. Albeit with an anti-authoritarian sheen.

This is not working class politics. Building anti-capitalist capacities is a collective enterprise. It requires the construction of new institutions, new political collectives, rebuilding and strengthening workplace organisation, popular cultures of resistance, and encouraging newly emergent movements. These overlapping efforts and projects can only head in the same direction if there is not just a theoretical appreciation of the solidarity necessary to hold them together, but a substantive politics that encourages it. It's perhaps unsurprising those bits of the left closest to and embedded in the labour movement have had the best approach to Coronavirus. They have put the safety and wellbeing of our class first and raised the necessary demands.

Yet this left libertarian response is not simply a matter of comrades having the "wrong ideas". It has material roots more serious than wanting to go to the pub. Firstly, there is the universal experience of restrictions themselves. These range from inconvenience to the hellish and the tragic. People not seeing loved ones for up to two years, the corrosion of social isolation, not being there when family members and friends needed them. Saying final farewells over Zoom, and unnecessary bereavements because Covid put people off attending medical appointments. A great well of sadness, regret, and bitterness has filled to overflowing for the duration of this crisis, which helps explain why the anger over the Tory Christmas parties is so volcanic. Who cannot empathise with the desire to be free of Covid restrictions, particularly when some of the comrades making the libertarian argument have badly suffered? The second is thanks to the class location of most young people. Disproportionately working in hospitality and retail, and with Sunak's studied refusal to directly support workers in these depressed sectors, restriction-scepticism is straightforwardly the spontaneous reaction to livelihoods under threat from a virus that isn't terribly likely to do them serious harm. It has internalised and fatally resigned itself to no government help, which merely reinforces the scepticism. Surely it's no accident a number of comrades who have made this case now find themselves left media entrepreneurs of some description, and so are subject to similar levels of precarity. The left libertarian critique articulates these sentiments, even if it's not making the relationship between the political position and their class basis explicit.

Covid is going to be with us for a long time and we have to learn about how to cope with it. The question is how we live these lives. Do we tail the government and, despite ourselves, assist them in bedding down their post-pandemic settlement - which looks a hell of a lot like the pre-pandemic settlement? Or do we try something different and proceed from our class analysis of the situation?

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Monday 27 December 2021

Whither the Liberal Democrats?

The Tories are sliding down a slope and Labour is sitting pretty. But what about the third force in English politics, our friends and sometime putative "progressive alliance" partners, the Liberal Democrats? They finish 2021 two seats up thanks to their stunning by-election victories, and recent polling is encouraging too. 10 of the last 11 polls put them in double figures, though the huge Focal Data MRP which awarded Labour a handsome lead sees the LibDems reduced to just six seats. Not good. Still, Keir Starmer has offered them a reason to be cheerful. Ruling out a formal arrangement, he mooted an informal alliance where Labour more or less pulls campaigning in LibDem target seats, most of which are not Labour priorities anyway. Very sensible if maximising anti-Tory tactical voting is the name of the game, but with the happy consequence of Labour being able to focus its depleting resources where they matter most.

It's worth looking at the LibDem position. They came second in 2019 in 91 seats, though this does flatter them somewhat. Only 15 seats finds the party facing majorities of fewer than 5,000, all of them held by the Tories with the exception of Sheffield Hallam (Labour) and Dunbartonshire East (SNP). Smashing the Tories in set piece by-elections are one thing, but they're always up against it in a general election where they're perennial also rans. Can they make a contribution to ending the Tories?

Their deputy leader Daisy Cooper thinks so. Making the same point as Starmer, she correctly states there are many voters in the so-called blue wall of ostensibly safe Tory seats that won't make the jump to Labour, but are willing to give her party a punt. She argues a formal understanding would smack of a stitch up which would scare off the soft Tory voters they need to target. It wouldn't be "fair". Slapping his party on the back, Ed Davey argues the North Shropshire result amounts to a "progressive reset" along the lines of what Boris Johnson pulled off in so many former Labour seats. That might be over-egging the pudding.

You wouldn't expect Davey or Cooper to honestly reflect on how Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire were one-off protests rather than the sea change they're hoping for, but the sad truth for Sarah Green and Helen Morgan is their time in Westminster is likely to be short. Because while the Tories are hurting and the Johnson tipping point might have been reached, this is not accompanied by an upsurge in enthusiasm for either of the main opposition parties - except for small, incremental advances in the polls. Yet, besides the LibDem bluster, they are on the right track.

During the years of the Corbyn interlude, Tim Farron and Jo Swinson believed disgruntled Labour voters were ripe for the plucking. For the former it was because Labour was too left wing, for the latter it was too beholden to Brexit. In the end, the LibDems failed to capitalise on either strategy because they were better placed to take votes from disgruntled Tories. At least that's what local contests between 2015 and 2019 demonstrated. You can make your own mind up about whether they chose to ignore what actual elections were telling them, or were keen to exorcise the spectre of working class politics and pile on Jeremy Corbyn's Labour. One thing's for sure, there would never have been any serious LibDem musing about a progressive alliance, even if it was de facto and on the down low, with the left still in the leadership.

The willingness for the LibDems to entertain these notions are another sign that Keir Starmer is successfully making Labour safer for bourgeois politics. But the jury is out on whether the LibDems can open a serious front against the Tories. They are caning the local by-elections, they are winning the parliamentary by-elections, so go ahead. They are welcome to knock themselves out and draw Tory fire away from Labour. But when all is said and done, the experience of 2010 hangs like a question mark over their heads. Can they be trusted to keep the Tories out?

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Sunday 26 December 2021

Starmerism at Year's End

What a difference six months make. According to the big constituency-by-constituency poll Focal Data have done for the Sunday Times, Labour is enjoying an eight-point lead. Not quite the 20 points promised by rightwingers a couple of years ago, but enough to give the party a 26-strong majority and the scalp of Boris Johnson himself: his seat is one of those slated to tip Labour's way. Keir Starmer's going to be quite happy with that as his Christmas gift. And yet none of this was inevitable. Six months ago Labour was reeling from the loss of Hartlepool, the its evaporation at the Chesham and Amersham by-election, and the scraping home in Batley and Spen by the tightest margins. Leadership speculation was in the air, a fluffed reshuffle damaged Starmer further, and as late as mid-October the Tories were occasionally posting double-digit leads. What happened?

One would be overly generous to describe Labour's comfortable position having anything to do with what the Labour leader has done. As explained here many times before, the chief characteristic of all governments since 1979 has been the centralisation of power and authority in the executive of the state and a weakening of the relative autonomy of the other institutions that comprise it. The main political consequence of this has been the ever greater investiture in the leadership and authority of the Prime Minister. If this drains away it's difficult to restore, and more often than not a new leader is required to recoup it for the cycle to be jumpstarted. This insight helps explain why Johnson clung to bad decisions made last year: because he could not be seen to be forced into retreat. Evidently issues vary in their capacity to erode authority, but coming one after the other they can have a cumulative effect. This has been the state of play since the summer. The Afghanistan debacle, National Insurance increase, suspension of the Triple Lock, and the unforced arrogance of the Owen Paterson affair put the Tories on the ropes, but it appears the Christmas Party scandal is the coup de grace. Nothing says dumping on the sacrifices practically everyone has had to make quite like a cheese and wine soiree.

Keir Starmer did nothing to achieve this outcome. None of this was foisted on the Tories by Labour making the political weather. That said from the point of view of increasing divisions among the government, Starmer was undoubtedly right in forcing Johnson to rely on Labour votes to get the latest round of Covid precautions through. Someone might point out that Starmer's room for manoeuvre was and is limited, thanks to the small matter of a large Tory majority and the press being uninterested in what Labour's doing. This is true enough, but even before he became leader Starmer indicated he wasn't about to contest the terms of Tory pandemic management. Whereas a properly constructive opposition would have made suggestions about supporting workers and containing the spread of infection, Starmer side-stepped this responsibility and opted for his comfort zone: managerial and process issues. It was a relatively simple matter for Johnson to brand the opposition leader as a bean-counting pedant, player of politics, and Captain Hindsight. In other words, Starmer made Labour irrelevant. Therefore when the vaccines came rolling out, his charges of mismanagement did not match up with the very smooth and well-organised job of millions getting their jabs. But perhaps abdicating from the politics of Covid ended up doing Starmer a favour. Also thanks to his courting the papers, Starmer has faced no press heat about the fights he's provoked inside the party, the pressure on him after the Hartlepool debacle was negligible, and even recent footage of him socialising when restrictions were in place was ignored.

Naturally, none of the Labour leader's fans can be this honest. Or at least, not say it out loud. John Rentoul, for example, puts this about turn in Labour's fortunes in the context of a praiseworthy "strategic patience". A funny way of saying luck. But this does raise a problem for Starmer. If the party's lead persists and Starmer's personal ratings continue to improve, "patience" will become the official explanation just as the vaccine bounce was the standard narrative for the polling doldrums. And, politics being politics, there's the tendency for leaders to quaff their own hype. This is a problem for Starmer because one thing he's demonstrated the last year is inflexibility. Since his rapid distancing from the leadership pledges into his preferred combo of technocratic Fabianism and superficial Blue Labourism, there has been no deviation from this course. The danger here is not so much the plastic patriotism, which all Labour leaders affect, but the policy prescriptions. If he offers nothing more substantial than competent leadership versus Johnson or his likely successor or, worse, emphasises his right wing positioning versus the Tories the left flank he needs to keep on board might find themselves tempted by the Greens, or by staying at home: a risk Labour cannot afford. Similarly, if Johnson undergoes an unlikely revival or his successor reinvents the Tories, a dogmatic insistence on the present course would not serve Labour well when a certain flexibility is required.

Nevertheless, Starmer and the Labour right are on a high, topped off by the Tory disaster in North Shropshire and the well-received Christmas address. To borrow Rentoul's phrase, now is the time for strategic patience. First, let the Tories carry on digging their hole, while occasionally lending them the spade. Second, concentrate on pushing a consistent and eye-catching narrative that can win back the lion share of the 2017 coalition and enough Tory voters. Recent polling shows this is possible, provided Starmer doesn't throw it away with another attack on the left or more right wing posturing. This moment is Labour's opportunity and Starmer's second chance - we'll see if 2022 is the year that builds toward an eventual election victory, or yet another famous defeat.

Friday 24 December 2021

Local Council By-Elections: 2021 in Aggregate

1,091,916 votes were cast over 537 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison you can view last year's results here.

* There were 22 by-elections in Scotland
** There were 26 by-elections in Wales
*** There were 36 contests with Independent clashes
**** See the quarterly round ups for the results from smaller parties

Another year like no other, exept for the last one. By-elections only resumed properly from March, and this May saw nearly all the by-elections saved over during the period of restrictions run. Unsurprisingly, as the Tories were polling well in Spring they scored their best ever by-election results. You might also contend what we saw was a readjustment of loyalties, delayed by almost 18 months, from the changes attending the 2019 general election. Looking at current government polling and the bruising they received in December, it's hard to believe they're less than a year apart.

Assuming there's not another lockdown, council by-elections resume in January with nine contests to look forward to. Will the Tories reverse the sudden run of defeats they experienced in December? As the mood is seemingly turning away from them, will 2022 bring more pain at the local level? Stay tuned.

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Quarter Four Council By-Elections 2021

This quarter 115,832 votes were cast over 87 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. For comparison you can view Quarter Three's results here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
Q3  21
+/- Q4 2019

* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There were five by-elections in Wales
*** There were six independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Basildon Community Residents Party (135), Bolton for Change (99), Communist Party of Britain (28), Liberal Party (202), Reform UK (6, 98), Rotherham Democratic Party (15, 6), Tunbridge Wells Alliance (788), TUSC (24, 76, 54, 84, 32),  Whitnash Residents' Association (835), Women's Equality Party (56), Workers Party of Britain (58, 10), Yorkshire Party (35, 20)

Another two-thirds/one-third set of results. Everything was ticking over quite nicely until the end of November and then the catastrophe of Boris Johnson's parties. The doom now appears upon the Tories, and this quarter finds them posting their largest net loss of councillors since the second quarter of 2016. We'll see if it can go lower. However, it's concerning that Labour's vote seems persistently depressed. This doesn't matter too much if the party is winning seats again, which it is, but it has to a better job of turning out its support for these contests if it's going to lay the ground for winning big later. But one thing Labour is now having to deal with are the resurgent Liberal Democrats and the rising Greens. Again, not too concerning if they're disproportionately cleaving into the Tories but could become bigger problems for Labour if left unchecked.

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