Wednesday, 7 December 2022

Hegemony in the 21st Century

Here's the first part of a trilogy of conversations Alex has with Jeremy Gilbert about the book he co-authored with Alex Williams, Hegemony Now: How Big Tech and Wall Street Won the World (And How We Win it Back). A must listen for thinking about the composition of the ruling class, and the importance of interest to radical politics. You can listen to parts two and three here and here. And, as ever, you can support Alex's work and Politics Theory Other via Patreon here.

Tuesday, 6 December 2022

The Tory Railway Pay Offer Stunt

You can always rely on the BBC to shred its partial commitment to impartial coverage where trade union disputes are concerned. Reporting on the RMT's decision to extend its strike days to include Christmas Eve to 27th December, it has dredged up any old random to criticise rail workers for ruining Christmas. As someone who's been very inconvenienced by the strikes for work and trying to sort a house move, I don't have any sympathy for this pleading. Especially when public support for the rail strikes is more popular than the government presiding over them. But the framing really sticks in the craw, as are the persistent lies allowed to pass without challenge or scrutiny by the media, save the tiny handful of left wing columnists.

This ramping up of action is in reply to the train companies' derisory "offer" to end the strikes. Having been allowed by the Transport Secretary to make a proposal, it would amount to a four per cent pay increase this year with another four per cent in 2024 (please note mathematically challenged journos, this is not the same as an eight per cent offer). In return for this real terms pay cut, the RMT would have to agree to thousands of job losses, which includes the closure of all ticket offices, the removal of guards from trains, and leaving staff at the mercy of company flexi scheduling. Race to the bottom doesn't quite cover it: these are proposals for completely wrecking the rail service by making it inaccessible to millions of people. But what does the Rail Delivery Group care as long as the government subsidy keeps rolling in?

The RMT rejected it out of hand, and have rightly responded to this insult by escalating action. Good. Because this was not remotely a serious offer. With the government's connivance, it was a Rail Delivery Group media stunt. Knowing only the liberal press like The Graun would report it with any even handedness or detail, the Tories and the companies are supposing the existence of an offer makes them look reasonable and rail workers militant hold outs. In an uncharacteristic moment of honesty in the Summer, then transport secretary Grant Shapps declared his intention was to break the strike. He's now over at Business, but the aim remains the same.

The Tories are not interested in making a settlement and think toughing it out will see public patience wear thin and strikers' resolve weaken. So far, there's no sign of either. The problem they have is they're beset from multiple sides by industrial action. The post, FE and HE workers, nurses, ambulance crews, and who knows who else are going to go out in the new year, makes them exceedingly vulnerable. Margaret Thatcher was never stupid enough to take on multiple groups of workers at once. They're desperate to defeat the RMT, perhaps the most militant and best organised union in the country, as a means of deterring other unions. To the credit of Mick Lynch and the RMT's leadership, they know what the Tories' game is. If they lose, it will be a blow to rising militancy. But if the union sees off the Tory attacks, it's not just rail workers who win. We all do.

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Monday, 5 December 2022

Keir Starmer and State Modernisation

Some first impressions on Gordon Brown's long-awaited review of the UK constitution. In his speech at Leeds University, Keir Starmer said Brown's recommendations would now form the basis of a consultation so they're ready to be implemented during the first parliament of an incoming Labour government. What's in them, and what are the politics of the proposals?

1. There are continuities between these proposals and what was in the last three Labour Party manifestos. In 2019, for example, Labour pledged to adopt a community wealth building approach with Preston as its model to regenerate local economies. There was to be greater freedom for local authorities over planning, but the real emphasis was on making funds available to rebuild public services run into the ground by a decade of Tory cuts. While nodding toward inequalities and the baleful consequences of centralised government, the Brown plan is driven by a different approach. I.e. Rather than restitution, his proposals reset the relationship between the state and its localities. Constitution, in other words.

2. The report identified 280 economic clusters scattered about the country. Transforming them into drivers of growth requires stronger local government, who will be responsible for driving economic plans and raising its own cash. Financial autonomy independent of the Treasury is a sharp divorce from received custom and practice. This is in conjunction with moving 50,000 civil service jobs out of London to save money and help build up the resilience of local economies, and encouraging cooperative relations between local authorities instead of the pork barrel competition set up by and presided over by the Tories' levelling up funds.

3. This is in the context of wider reform to the constitution. The abolition of the Lords, already trailed a couple of weeks ago, was reiterated again. Its replacement would be an assembly of the nations and the regions, which would lose the Lords' scrutinising function but work as the voice of local and devolved governments and safeguard their powers. Local authorities would also win the right to initiate legislation pertaining to their localities in parliament. Meanwhile, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland would enjoy new freedoms. Some limited foreign affairs powers for Scotland, along with the same local government agenda as England and Wales (that would surely upset the SNP). There would be new crime and punishment powers for the Welsh Assembly, and all three of the nations would enjoy the same access to the new British Regional Investment Bank.

4. The Labour Party is promising a golden age for policy wonks. What Starmer is setting out is the rudiments of a new regime of capital accumulation. Rather than central government getting involved in picking winners and driving economic policy, pushing it down into the lower reaches of the state, on paper, creates a more benign and supportive environment for businesses to operate in. Though it does not say so in this report, going from Rachel Reeves's rebranded Green New Deal and Starmer's own pronouncements on trade unionism, their envisaged role of government is one that sets out the overall strategic priorities for economic development while stepping in as an honest broker between capital and labour where it comes to industrial relations. The document contributes to the blue print for a new model of British capitalism. One in which the state (the executive, its devolved and local government entities, and the public services run under their shared aegis), businesses, and labour know their place and have a clearly delineated framework for relating to one another.

5. This is an obvious improvement on the half-arsed and corrupt effort of Tory modernisation. It is more ambitious than the Blair/Brown efforts at revamping the British state because it goes further. Whereas New Labour retained the neoliberal settlement and significantly reinforced it, while implementing some mildly redistributive policies, Starmer is offering something new. Its ambition was only matched by the Corbyn years, but with significant differences. Corbynism was more than just reversing austerity and restoring public services, it pointed to a break with bourgeois politics. The championing of alternative forms of ownership and the promise of more workplace democracy implied a fundamental challenge to capital and its right to manage its assets. I.e. The means of production. The radicalism of the Brown plan departs from the received wisdom of British statecraft (and its centring on the City) only, and it does this not to enhance democracy but to save British capitalism from itself.

6. This nevertheless is big politics, and it proved too much for the reporters who quizzed Starmer about it following his speech. Beth Rigby asked Starmer how this would help people facing the pressures of the cost of living crisis. Another suggested talk of Lords reform was bewildering given the scale of our present economic problems. Aren't these just Westminster bubble issues? And tweeting away, Times Iain Martin hack ignorantly crowed about Labour's 40-point plan. It's almost as if a generation of journalists are incapable of comprehending anything but the most marginal of changes, or anything more abstract than the state taking money from one area and spending it in another. To be fair to Starmer, he deftly dealt with this small-minded line of questioning by pointing out how short-termism was one of the contributing reasons why the Tories have got the country into such a mess. It also spoke to people's desire to do things differently and stop politics from being a block on what they want to do. Getting the politics right is central to economic prosperity.

7. Again, the question of trust has to be raised. Why should we believe Starmer is going to deliver on this? Because, ultimately, it's the politics. The 2020 leadership pledges were mostly ditched or watered down because they are fundamentally at odds with his technocratic, managerial politics. The settlement set out in the Brown document doesn't challenges his authoritarian view of government in any tangible way. He has his job at the top, and the First Ministers, the metro mayors, and the council leaders have their own domains to attend to further down. Introducing more elections to replace the Lords and making local authority elections matter more are hardly a major difficulty where the supremacy of his administration are concerned. In short, he's offering a great deal of change so things can, fundamentally, stay the same.

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Sunday, 4 December 2022

The Right's Walking Wounded

Won't anyone think of the racist aristo? Poor Lady Susan Hussey. A life time of craven service at the apex of Britain's class system, an episode of racist bullying - among who knows how many unremarked such episodes - has brought her 60-year association with Buckingham Palace to an end. The defences, of which there are plenty, were tediously predictable. She's 83 years old! Lady Hussey is from another time! She can't be expected to treat black people with respect! Probably the most stupid defence came from the pen of Petronella Wyatt. In what is 2022's greatest line in comment journalism, she writes, "Susan Hussey has no prejudices at all. She spent much of her life married to a man called Marmaduke, who had one leg." Game, set, and match.

While complaining of the "wasteland" her life has become, the sort of defence Wyatt is making on her well-heeled acquaintance's behalf speaks to the identity politics the right likes to play. Or, to be more accurate, a certain simulacra of wounding.

In Wendy Brown's States of Injury, a great deal of radical politics is characterised by a permanent attachment to suffering. In the context of the United States (and liberalism generally), the abstract citizen of American democracy is sovereign. They are individuated, and politics and civil society are the arenas for exercising their rights. Such as the right to free speech, freedom of conscience, to own property, etc. These are juridically and constitutionally guaranteed. However, as is well known, the lineage of these rights are premised on exclusions. Marx famously critiqued the liberal subject as a political appendage of the bourgeoisie. After all, what good is a political theory that doesn't even acknowledge the existence of the capitalist mode of production? Various thinkers from WEB Du Bois to Cedric Robinson demonstrated how this class subject was premised on racialised others, with the freedoms ascribed to it consciously defined against the less-than-human (because less-than-free) status of the slaves/colonised peoples. Likewise, the women's movement have critiqued the liberal subject as a masculine one, both in terms of how women were less than citizens before the vote was conceded and after in terms of its silences over gender. As Catharine MacKinnon observed, gender blindness marks gender bias in the law and political order.

For Brown, despite citizenship premised on the exclusion of women, minority ethnicities, and the working class, in US politics it has become something for excluded groups to aspire to. Indeed, the last 200 years could be read as an extension of citizenship to those whose existence it originally erased. During this time communities of solidarity have banded together to prosecute their interests within the boundaries of the political order. The abolition of Jim Crow and the institutionalisation of civil rights, the achievement of equal rights for women and sexual minorities at local and state level, and the subsumption of organised labour via the New Deal demonstrated the openness of the US system.

The first problem for Brown are the depoliticising outcomes of these struggles. While representing real strides forward that materially benefit millions of people, simultaneously what was a source of productive political conflict, upon victory, negates its potential and slots the identity location in question into the disciplinary apparatus of the state. In other words, it goes from a political subject with the power to mobilise to a position subject to normative regulation. Less poacher turned gatekeeper, more revolting bodies made docile. The second difficulty for Brown is how identity locations of necessity mobilise on the basis of pain and wounding. Identities share common histories, and what characterises the narratives told about those histories are the crimes and oppression inflicted upon them and their predecessors. Always a necessary component for struggle, because of the dynamics of liberal political regimes the formation of strong identities is the precondition for winning legislation that addresses their interests/concerns. The consequence of this is the tendency toward fetishising identity, of treating pain and wounding as essential components of a collective social location. Rather than working toward abolishing the relationships perpetuating the wounded life, they become talismanic. Suffering is political capital to be cashed in, and justifies more claims making in the terms of the liberal order. This form of identity politics, while making its claims, does not contest the rule of the game nor the system they seek recognition under. Taken to its logical conclusion, the state becomes a neutral arbiter among a plurality of depoliticised identities as well as the guarantor of all of their rights. Alliances between different groups on this terrain are precarious and episodic, and is why Brown, similar to Donna Haraway, argues that radical politics should start from commonalities and affinities, not identities.

Britain is an altogether different polity to the US, and while not as open as that system identity politics is constituted in similar ways. The manual working class fetish on the left, the feminist border wars over class and transphobia, and the struggles in minority ethnicity communities between "established leaders" and those coming up to challenge them speak to the same phenomenon. Even identities seemingly based around invented political labels, Leaver and Remainer, Cybernat, #BringBackBoris and Corbyn stans have similar characteristics. But the wounding, the use of pain and suffering to cohere identities is as much, if not more so a property of the right than the left. Recently, the Tories reacted with horror after Nicola Sturgeon said she "detested" the Tories and everything they stood for. The poor shrinking violets. Nigel Farage flitted from BBC studio to BBC studio on a not dissimilar shtick. Here was someone telling the truth you're not allowed to say any more. Farage adopted a faux subaltern position, claiming he was under attack from the establishment because he told it how it was. In fact, Farage has always been an establishment figure but his under-siege ruse, his pantomime of wounding was beguiling to some. Boris Johnson followed the path the former UKIP leader had trod. Except it wasn't him who was suffering, it was the British people. The remain establishment, in cahoots with the luvvie left around Jeremy Corbyn and every minority grouping the Tories customarily scapegoated wanted to steal their democratic choice to leave the European Union. To repair the country the second referendum lobby were grievously bruising, concerned citizens had to vote Conservative to get Brexit done.

The right's sense of wounding is different to that identified by Brown among the left and progressive movements. The identity the right validates and identifies with is the unreconstructed, unmodified liberal subject of representative democracy. Not the one that (theoretically) allows space in its abstraction for those hitherto excluded from it, but the act of exclusion itself. The right identifies with what is unstated - the white, propertied man who was the model liberal political philosophy articulated and is articulated upon. It is the sovereignty of one class looking downwards upon another, of the masculine and the white adjudging and guarding against those demanding the same recognition and equalities before the state afforded them. As, among other things, philosophy is class struggle in theory we shouldn't be surprised that the right's sense of wounding, of privilege under siege, is the thought echo of conceding ground on workers' rights, equal rights legislation for women and minority ethnicities, the acceptance and normalisation of same sex relationships, and now struggles against police racism and misogyny, transphobia, environmental destruction and climate collapse. What is "wounded" is their perceived capacity not to exercise their sovereignty. What this really translates into is how naked exercises of their power and privilege comes with significant social costs. "You can't say anything any more" more often than not means getting challenged in some way. After all, Lady Hussey wasn't sacked, she was called to account. Similarly, Liz Truss and her ridiculously reckless growth plan fell apart because she was called to account. And it's this, the right's exposure to accountability is what they find so offensive. It's the pain of having to cope with democratic norms and expectations, as limited as they are. This is how wounding characterises their politics, and it could, among other things, be said that the Conservative Party's project is the management of this discomfiture.

The right's walking wounded, therefore, is less a reaction against "woke" politics. That's just the current manifestation of the agonies they are facing under the impact of proliferating identity politics and cultural trends tending toward social liberalism. Rather the wound, their stinking maggoty wound is a permanent one that cannot but fester for as long as a semblance of liberal democratic politics are in play, and the system remains just open enough to be continually contested. There will be more Lady Husseys for as long as this state of affairs persists, or is superseded by something better.

New Left Media December 2022

It's been a few months since we last had a round up of new left media projects, so here are some to fill your appetite for new voices and new outlets.

1. Harry's Last Stand Podcast (Twitter)

2. Labour for the Long Term Blog

3. Pro-Revolution Soccer (Podcast) (Twitter)

4. Red Medicine (Podcast) (Instagram, Twitter)

5. Stir to Action (Magazine) (Twitter)

If you know of any new(ish) blogs, podcasts, channels, Facebook pages, spin offs of existing projects, campaign websites 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, 3 December 2022

The Stylistics - I Can't Give You Anything (But My Love)

There are a couple of posts on the hob, but as the cat is being annoying you'll have to make do with a ditty for tonight. Strap yourselves in, we're heading back to 1975.

Friday, 2 December 2022

Sajid Javid: An Anti-Appreciation

As a reminder of how Twitter is essential political infrastructure, former health, home, housing secretary, chancellor for five minutes, and serial leadership contender, Sajid Javid took to the platform to announce he's stepping down at the next general election. Can't say I blame him, to be honest. Despite having a reputation as an ideologue as hard on the party's right as Rishi Sunak, Javid is rare among Tories for possessing a brain. And with the chances of an election victory in 2024 at absolute zero, a lengthy if not permanent period of opposition doesn't appear appetising. Especially if there are more lucrative opportunities elsewhere, which there will be for an ex-banker like Javid.

To be honest, I'll be sorry to see him go. There are Tories, and there are interesting Tories and Javid fits that bill for me. I've always had a bit more time for those born without the silver spoon and haven't benefited from undue privilege. That doesn't mean Javid wasn't a frightful horror, politically speaking. As Home Secretary he described Momentum as a "neo-fascist organisation", an allegation he would never repeat outside of the Commons chamber. He also shielded the Tory party from allegations of Islamophobia, despite hailing from a Muslim background himself. He mixed himself up in the "Asian paedophiles" discourse with the worst of them. And as part of his duties in his previous life in the City, he operated a tax avoidance scheme that laundered bankers' bonuses through the Cayman Islands so they could enjoy the fruits of their ill-gotten gains in full.

What was interesting about Javid was his first stab at the top. Unconventionally, he formed a joint ticket with Stephen Crabb in 2016 and offered a first stab at blue collar Toryism - this was before Theresa May and Boris Johnson variously adapted themselves to it. The ruse didn't work for them and it wasn't long before Crabb had to step down from front rank politics following the unearthing of inappropriate text messages. Second was, despite the peddling the same disingenuous and dishonest rubbish as fellow Tory ministers, he appeared to have an attachment to ideas. Initially billed as a follower of the unlamented Ayn Rand, in 2020 Javid put his name to a report by the Centre for Policy Studies. The think tank, founded by the blessed Margaret and her mentor/hanger-on Keith Joseph did a 180 and called for more public spending and state intervention in the economy. For a disciple of so-called objectivism to endorse this non-Thatcherite course demonstrated again a certain flexibility in his thinking. Unlike Sunak who is a plodder and is dogmatically sticking with a strategy that won't save the Tories, the two occasions Javid showed an innovative spirit suggests that he would have served his party well as leader, and therefore made our lives and that of the labour movement more difficult. But he did do us a solid - he kicked off the mass resignations from Johnson's cabinet and ensured their best electoral asset was put out to pasture.

Javid's departure is, by my reckoning, the 18th Tory to have announced his decision to stand down in 2024. He won't be the last one calling time on his political career either. If sitting MPs can't show they have confidence in their party, why should the voters?

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Portending Tory Doom

With news about Labour's by-election triumph in Chester over night, Keir Starmer's office began the day with a spring in their step. Labour increased its majority to over 11,000 - building on the healthy numbers achieved in 2017 and 2019. The Tories, however, plunged to their worst result since 1880 (not since 1832, as journalists incapable of using Wikipedia have claimed) with just over a fifth of the vote. It was always unlikely the Tories were going to bounce back and take a Labour-held seat, what with politics being what it is, but does the margin of victory tell us much?

A few brief points. Again, as we've seen with recent local by-election results, some comrades on social media have allowed their dislike of Starmer get in the way of clear thinking. First, it is a good result. 60.8% is Labour's best result in Chester, and the highest vote polled by any winning party since 1959. Second, while some pretend the low turnout - 40% - is a marker for the disdain most people hold the parties in, this is standard fare for a parliamentary by-election. No by-election on mainland Britain has exceeded the turnout of the preceding general election since 1982. Yes, I don't like it either but when Jeremy Corbyn was leader by-elections more often than not plunged below Chester's turnout. There isn't much enthusiasm for Starmer, but there's no point pretending the collapse of the Tories isn't allowing Labour to weigh the vote in places.

Also keen to talk down the vote is, bizarrely, centrist pollster of choice Peter Kellner. After going on about how the swing away from the Tories in the by-election, which was just shy of 14 points, would never be repeated uniformly across the country's constituencies because circumstances aren't the same everywhere, he then goes on to complain that Labour are going to have to do better if it wants a thumping majority. He digs out a table to show how by-election swings aren't necessarily repeated in the same seat at general elections. Okay, but what's the point? Puffing his cheeks out, he recalls the Corby by-election from 2012 which Labour won handily, and then the seat returned to the Tory fold three years later. His conclusion is Labour needs to do better than that in future by-elections to have the next contest in the bag. Yes, if your sole guide is the numbers and you ignore the politics. Complete statistical sophistry.

Henry Hill for ConHome produces a much better analysis. He rightly argues that what was an extreme marginal seat just seven years ago has flipped in that time to a safe Labour seat. Actually, when Labour got a majority of 9,000 in 2017 that transformation was much quicker than Hill supposes. He surveys a bunch of other recent marginals in 2010 that even in 2019 had become rock solid Labour seats. And that leaves him worrying. How many more swing seats are set not just to fall Labour's way, but are going to fall hard. The one consolation for the Tories is despite the hype and the duff polling from Matt Goodwin's People Polling outfit, Reform only managed to increase their by-election support by a fraction of a percentage and finished sixth behind the Greens.

As argued many times here, the Tory decline was going to begin biting in the 2020s as the Tories' electoral coalition entered long-term decline and could not renew itself. Liz Truss, in her infinite wisdom, accelerated the process and Rishi Sunak, and any other Tory for that matter, haven't got a clue about turning the situation around. So they're not even bothering. There is then little room for doubt. The Chester result chimes with national polling and the mood of the country. The doom is upon the Tories, and there's no escaping the cataclysm coming for them.

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Thursday, 1 December 2022

Local Council By-Elections November 2022

This month saw 42,692 votes cast in 30 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 13 council seats changed hands. For comparison with October's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Nov 21
Lib Dem

* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Alba (90), Freedom Alliance (18), National Housing Party (59), Reform UK (144), Scottish Socialist Party (46), TUSC (63), UKIP (19), Vectis Party (36)

The popular vote might not be all that, but this is Labour's best electoral performance since May. For many years Tory held seats appeared resistant to the charms of the official opposition, but now the Conservatives are ceding seats to Labour faster than Vladimir Putin is giving ground to Ukraine in Kherson. As local election support shifts to reflect the facts of political life registered by national polling we can only expect more retreats in the future. It was also a very busy month for the Independents, who did well by scooping up a couple of seats and getting a pile of votes in some places. That skews the overall polling figures and depresses the vote share of the main parties.

That brings me on to some discourse circulating on social media about Labour's performance in by-elections. The argument goes like this: Labour's real lead is nowhere near that reported by the polling firms because the votes it's getting in by-elections fall short. This is a nonsense argument. One, the main parties' votes can be depressed as outlined above. It's very unlikely sundry independent candidates will get six per cent of the vote in a general election. Second is a sociological point. Who votes in local council by-elections? As older people are more likely to turn out in first order elections, if anything this is amplified in elections that are seen not to matter so much. As we know, older people are more likely to vote Conservative so, if anything, council by-elections give them a significant advantage. And yet they're slipping and dropping seats right, left, and centre. If the Tories are falling back here, imagine how much worse they would be doing if younger layers of voters turned out at the same rate as the older ones.

As we head into December then, the omens aren't looking good across the 24 by-election contests and the eight seats the Tories are defending.

3 November
Croydon, Selsdon Vale & Forestdale, Con hold
Lichfield, Chasetown, Lab gain from Con
Moray, Buckie, SNP gain from LDem
Nottinghamshire, Eastwood, Ind gain from Con
South Cambridgeshire, Longstanton, LDem hold, Con gain from LDem
Wiltshire, Salisbury St Paul's, LDem gain from Con

10 November
Braintree, Braintree South, Lab gain from Con
Braintree, Coggeshall, Ind hold
Broxtowe, Greasley, Con hold
Burnley, Rosehill with Burnley Wood, Lab gain from Con
Cannock Chase, Cannock West, Con hold
East Devon, Newton Poppleford & Harpford, Ind hold
King's Lynn & West Norfolk, Gaywood Clock, Lab hold
Kingston-upon-Thames, Green Lane & St James, Ind gain from LDem
South Kesteven, Bourne East, Con hold
South Kesteven, Grantham St Wulfram's, Con hold

17 November
Bolsover, Pinxton, Lab hold
Blackburn with Darwen, Darwen South, Lab gain from Con
Blackpool, Greenlands, Lab gain from Con
Glasgow, Linn, Lab hold
Oldham, Hollinwood, Lab hold
Rhondda Cynon Taf, Abercynon, Lab hold
Shetland, Shetland West, Ind hold
Suffolk, Beccles, Grn hold

23 November
Ashfield, Hucknall Central, Ind hold

24 November
Bassetlaw, Sutton, Lab gain from Con
Isle of Wight, Brighstone, Calbourne & Shalfleet, LDem gain from Con
Sefton, Linacre, Lab hold
Warrington, Rixton & Woolston, Con hold

30 November
Surrey, Sunbury Common & Ashford Common, LDem gain from Con

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Five Most Popular Posts in November

What did the business over the course of the last month?

1. Starmerism and Trade Unionism
2. First Contact: An Alien Encounter
3. Murdering Twitter
4. Taking the Labour Right to Court
5. Why Starmer Trails Sunak

Keir Starmer tops the pops with my consideration of the role trade unionism plays in his project. He's not known as a lover of democratic politics, and his apparent enthusiasm for collective bargaining and workplace rights sits uneasily with his authoritarianism. How do the two fit together? A rare post that wasn't about politics gets the second spot - a look at the dull BBC documentary about first contact with an alien civilisation. Coming in third is Elon Musk's mismanagement of Twitter. The website is still there, but most people are reporting more spam and falling follower counts, and now Musk has decided to go to war with Apple and the EU are threatening action. Is it going to be with us this time next year? In the lead up to Ian Byrne's Liverpool West Derby reselection, I looked at the possibility of using legal action to halt some of the shenanigans we've seen around Labour Party selections. Where the party continually breaks its rule book, there should be. And last, we end the month as we started it with Starmer trailing Rishi Sunak in the best Prime Minister stakes. Why?

A couple of more requests for additional consideration. I wrote a long(ish) piece on the ruling class politics of Brexit as an antidote to the irrational/psychological cult explanations that dominate the discourse. Second is my long overdue review of Mike Phipps's Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow. Check them out!

As we enter the final month of the year, we can expect all the usual festive/end of year content. But the news won't be stopping. The by-election in Chester takes place today, which will be the first electoral test for Sunak. Ambulance workers and nurses organised by the RCN are due to take strike action, among others. And Sunak's authority will likely continue unwinding with opposition on the government benches to housing and the onshore wind ban. Other stuff to look forward to are reflections on immaterial labour, perhaps more Wendy Brown stuff, and the usual survey of the politics that goes down. If you haven't already, don't forget to follow the free weekly newsletter, and if you like what I do (and you're not skint), you can help support the blog too! Following me on Twitter and Facebook are cost-free ways of showing your backing for this corner of the internet.

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Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Resenting Bourgeois Subjects

Just Wendy Brown situating identity politics in its conformist and radical potentials. Beginning from the bourgeois subject as the standard for politics, she writes (States of Injury 1995, pp 59-60):
If it is this ideal that signifies educational and vocational opportunity, upward mobility, relative protection against arbitrary violence, and reward in proportion to effort, and if it is this ideal against which many of the exclusions and privations of people of colour, gays and lesbians, and women are articulated, then the political purchase of contemporary American identity politics would seem to be achieved in part through a certain renaturalisation of capitalism that can be said to have marked progressive discourse since the 1970s. What this also suggests is that identity politics may be partly configured by a peculiarly shaped and peculiarly disguised form of class resentment, a resentment that is displaced onto discourses of injustice other than class, but a resentment, like all resentments, that retains the real or imagined holdings of its reviled subject as objects of desire. In other words, the enunciation of political identities through race, gender, and sexuality may require - rather than incidentally produce - a limited identification through class, specifically abjuring a critique of class power and class norms precisely insofar as these identities are established vis-a-vis a bourgeois norm of social acceptance, legal protection, and relative material comfort. Yet, when not only economic stratification but other injuries to the human body and psyche enacted by capitalism - alienation, commodification, exploitation, displacement, disintegration of sustaining albeit contradictory social forms such as families and neighbourhoods - when these are discursively normalised and thus depoliticised, other markers of social difference may come to bear an inordinate weight; indeed, they may bear all the weight of the sufferings produced by capitalism in addition to that attributable to the explicitly politicised marking.

Sunday, 27 November 2022

The Left after Corbyn

Reading Mike Phipps's Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is an act of masochism for any left winger. Not because it's bad (it's not) or the arguments tendentious (they're not), but because it's a book about retreat. That is the retreat of the left from its position of strength in the Labour Party to where we are now, having gone through the experience of devastating election loss, the easy restitution of the right, the de facto expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn, and the barring of left wingers from constituency short lists. This all begs the question, where do we go now? Mike does offer some direction, but is it the right one?

Don't Stop is essential reading for anyone wanting a good tour of Labour's pains in the early 2020s. It's also useful for addressing some of the main arguments that have come from within the left to explain what happened. Mike is understandably coruscating of Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire's Left Out, which was the first book off the starting blocks. As the unofficial counterpart to Tim Shipman's Brexit duology, they explain matters entirely within the purview of he said/she said gossip mongery beloved of politics hacks. Owen Jones's This Land comes much better off because his offers a political critique of the Corbyn period: the leadership suffered because it lacked a coherent strategy and narrative, and Labour went high on policy instead of stooping low and attacking Boris Johnson's character. By way of a reply, Mike observes that had Corbyn gone for personal attacks it would have undermined his standing as an issues man, which had already suffered from the parliamentary manoeuvres over Brexit. Also, somewhat counter-intuitively to establishment and left arguments, Mike argues that Labour's adoption of the second referendum position had less of an impact than supposed. Quoting a contemporaneous poll of 2017 switchers from Labour, it found the Brexit position (17%) trailed leadership (43%). Brexit blaming also plays down the potentially greater losses to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens had the referendum position not been adopted. In my view, the immediate aftermath of the 2017 election was the time to cement Labour's position. That moment passed and by 2019 it was too late - what was adopted ensured a less worse outcome than what could have proven a complete catastrophe.

On Keir Starmer's leadership, Mike isn't likely to provoke much disagreement among his readers. He goes over the Labour leader's capitulation to the government on Covid (which was evident before he took office), which Starmer repeated time and again on undercover cop scandals, abstentionism on military offences, and what could only be described as reluctant opposition to the Tories' draconian sentencing bill. On trade union politics, such as the teachers' arguments against the government's reckless Covid strategy, there was studied silence. And on Starmer's campaign against the left, from sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey as soon as the opportunity presented itself to expelling Corbyn from the parliamentary party, all of Starmer's greatest hits are there. Curiously, Mike fits this into a theme of Starmer caving into right wing pressure. While there is always influence exerted from this direction, it does run the risk of letting Starmer off. For about 18 months, it's been clear that he has a project of his own that is simultaneously authoritarian and modernising, one centred on the restitution of state legitimacy and its efficacy. I think Mike's discussion would have benefited from reflecting a bit more on what Starmer's politics are about, because the idea he's uniquely scheming and Labour's faults stem from his legion of personal faults and habits has too much traction and speaks to a looking-out-for-a-hero politics the left would do well to avoid.

The what next prescription was always likely to be controversial. Mike observes that Labour still has a mass membership, despite the flood of resignations since Starmer won the leadership. As such, the party remains the biggest organised base of socialists and left wingers in this country. In fact, he registers his surprise that the exodus hasn't been bigger. Looking at arguments made by James Schneider and Jem Gilbert against those who've left the party, both have suggested these Labour leavers had a conditional attachment to the party. For as long as there was an accord between their views and the party's politics, they'd stay. Once that had disappeared, they did too. This typifies the "neoliberalisation" of political attitudes and engagement, of effectively getting into politics for a warm bath. Except this is not what Labour is. The party has always been a site of struggle, and therefore leaving is effectively ceding the field to the right. While Mike has some sympathy with the logic of this argument, he does point out that many of the new activists who joined the party in 2015 had previously gone through 13 years of Labour government and all the duplicity and right wing politics that entailed. Not wanting to be around for what many of them regard as more of the same is entirely understandable - but, as Mike says, still wrong. While not adopting the sharpness of the Schneider/Gilbert thesis, he does suggest too much of the left have adopted a defeatist mindset. Giving up struggling in the Labour Party typifies this.

In his own very thorough review of Don't Stop, Tom Blackburn argues that Mike does not get to grips with the book's great unsaid: Labourism. Rightly observing the party is a party of struggle and a party of state, with the Labour right putting loyalty to the latter above all, it can only ever be a compromised political location and one that stymies radical politics. Yet Labourism in its left manifestations cannot and will not face up to its own reality. Appealing to stay in the party, to fight rearguard actions against the right and sponsoring (and winning) progressive policies at conference rests on a fiction that change can come through the party. The experience of Corbynism, which at its best and most radical moments pushed at Labourism's limits have tested the Labour left's assumptions to destruction. Mike does shadow box with some aspects of the critique of Labourism by noting the historically poor performance of left wing parties that run in elections, but doesn't stop to ask whether this should be the criterion of political efficacy. To be fair, Mike does note the axis of struggle is now taking place outside the party, what with the street movements of recent years and the ramping up of serious trade union disputes. But a section of the Labour left have always engaged with extra-parliamentary struggles without offering a theory of political change that challenges Labourism's tenets.

There are no easy or ready answers. Tom, also acknowledging how the extra-Labour left have well-travelled the road to lost deposits, says that an alternative party remains essential for breaking with Labourism. Obviously, Mike thinks differently. Looking at the programme taking shape under the return to right wing Labourism, Starmer's prescriptions are an advance on what is offered by the Tories. Though obviously this comes with certain caveats. It means no change for those crossing the Channel in dinghies, for example. Whether his offering of a rejuvenated state is worth remaining in Labour for is another matter. A modest suggestion, then. As opposed to the defeatist mindset Mike warns against, perhaps instead we should come at matters with an organisers' mindset. That is maintaining the relationships built up during the course of the struggles we are embedded in, while looking to forge new connections and building new solidarities. It's obvious what this means for street movements and industrial action - build support, participate where directly involved, and push their politics on the cost of living crisis, on environmental degradation, police violence, and anti-racism. But doing this in Labour means asking searching questions and the action taken varies depending on where one is, the character of the local constituency party, if membership is a boon or hindrance to participating in wider struggles, and where the party runs councils if the power of local government can make a difference. Such a position does not have the advantage of a mapped out strategy apart from trying to cohere the left, wherever it is engaged, around and in service of current struggles. I haven't got a ready made answer, but perhaps one might come about through more collective action in the situations we find ourselves in.

Don't Stop therefore comes highly recommended. Mike provides an accurate summation of where the left are in the Labour Party, and while not a cheery read it is a necessary one. Changing the concrete situation is only possible if we're equipped with a sober analysis of it.

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