Friday 29 April 2022

Who Killed The KLF?

Looks like this is going to drop as 90s nostalgia keeps piling up.

Thursday 28 April 2022

The Anatomy of a Dishonest Attack Ad

Look at the state of this. Here we are a week away from crucial local elections for Keir Starmer. Contests that will be a challenge to make demonstrable progress with because the seats contested are mostly Labour defences in localities that lean Labour anyway. But even then with slim pickings to be had from the Tories, Labour goes ahead and runs an attack ad on the Liberal Democrats. This doesn't speak highly of the below-the-counter "understanding" Starmer has said he wants to forge. And it doesn't make much sense from an electoral point of view, does it?

Take a look at the advert. The LibDems will LEGALISE DRUGS AND SOFTEN PUNISHMENTS. Terrifying. GET RID OF BRITAIN'S NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Unserious. What better way to register your opposition to lunatic liberalism than electing a couple of Labour councillors to sort the dog shit out? I suppose it was too much to expect the leadership to show leadership and offer a coherent positive vision Labour Groups could draw on to win over the doorstep doubters. With nothing on offer, dishonest attacks are all they have. But making daft claims about an irrelevant opponent isn't the purpose of the exercise. The clues to what the game is are in the politics pushed.

First off, Keir Starmer is an authoritarian. His politics are power politics, of suits and briefcases determining what's best for the country and handing down policies that would make life better for the little people. There's nothing really new to this: Fabianism and the so-called revisionist tradition, which has been a core component of Labourism from the beginning, operates according to the same principles. Parliamentary elites do the governing and the rest of the country, including the labour movement and the party's membership, are expected to have no further role beyond helping these people get in office and stay in office. Nor is Starmer's authoritarianism especially unique. The cringe patriotism, gushing praise for the military and police, acquiescence to the junking of liberties and freedoms, and contempt for the people who put him in position have their precursors in Tony Blair. Though, it must be noted, Blair didn't lie to the party membership to get himself elected. Whether Starmer really believes this rubbish or not is immaterial. He's decided that he wants to be associated with these positions. This is the image he presents to the electorate, and these are the terms on which he wants to win these elections and the general election when it comes around.

But this still doesn't explain the why. What have nuclear weapons and targeting the LibDems got to do with the local elections campaign? Nothing. And everything. Even though the terrain next Thursday favours Labour, it's a truism of local elections that, like national elections, the old are more likely to turn out than the young. Except even more so. These are older people who disproportionately vote Conservative and are attracted to authoritarian politics. In Labour strategy land, these people need to be won over. Following the craven traditions of right wing opportunism, Starmer leans into rather than challenges their prejudices in the hope of catching their votes. In other words, it's not about the LibDems. By having an go at the yellow party for being, well, yellow, the hope is Tory authoritarians will like the cut of the Starmerist gib and count themselves in. These elections are therefore a test bed for the kind of campaign Starmer wants to fight and win on - the LibDems are just a convenient foil.

Chances are this will be lost among the electoral noise. Like most local elections, the results will be determined by a combination of local factors and whether the electorate want to give the government a deserved kicking. Because Starmer hasn't gone out of his way to capture the public imagination, what his office thinks it's doing is inconsequential to the outcome. But if the result is good, this is going to provide proof of the correctness of this course and we'll only see it doubled down on in upcoming by-elections and next year's locals. What will be interesting is if Labour stands still or goes backward. Where then for Starmer's authoritarian prospectus?

Wednesday 27 April 2022

Hungarian Capitalism Under Orban

Listen to Alex's discussion with Dorit Geva about Viktor Orban's election victory in Hungary, how he pulled it off, and how his "post-neoliberalism" is a selective recombination of neoliberal policy and governance with "national" capitalism and state authoritarianism.

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Tuesday 26 April 2022

Elon Musk and Wasteful Spending

Is there room for another contribution on Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter? Of course there is. The reaction could be seen coming from a mile off. Some people vaguely identifying with the left have said they're off, departing for the greener pastures of Discord and Tumblr. And the right are hailing him as a billionaire messiah set on junking the platform's cancel culture. In truth, Twitter's going to remain pretty much the same. Donald Trump might be let back on for Musk's amusement, and we can look forward to additional features added such as an edit button and whatever else its new proprietor fancies, but the essentials won't change. Unless Musk has spent $44bn just to smash the platform into the wall. Its future as an open-ended network is not likely to change, nor will its status as the establishment's favourite social media tool. The terms and conditions aren't going to get ripped up either. Twitter still operates in dozens of legal contexts, and has to be seen to be doing something about hate speech lest the company gets bogged down by multiple charges in multiple jurisdictions. That means the right wingers full of praise for Daddy Elon are going to be disappointed when it does not become the libertarian free-for-all they've set their blackened hearts upon.

The move to buy Twitter, which came hot on the heels of his acquiring a 9.2% stake in the business at the beginning of the month, is pretty much what we might expect from Musk. Since becoming the world's richest man while, apparently, sofa surfing up and down the Californian coast, Musk has demonstrated that obscene riches offer no protection against buffoonery. It's actually appropriate that he, more so than the "serious" Jeff Bezos, is the global face of the capitalist class. The wealth that is concentrating in the infinitesimally small number of billionaires is, in conventional terms, more than enough to solve hunger and homelessness, fund Covid vaccinations for the global south, and drive an agricultural revolution in sub-Saharan Africa. I'm sure you can think of many other problems. Why then does Musk, with his $260bn fortune and the rest of his parasite class refuse to do anything about it? Are they especially cruel and hard hearted?

Maybe, maybe not. Marx noted that capitalists are personifications of capital. That doesn't mean they are walking piles of money but are the condensation of an exploitative social relation. Why, for example, is Musk very happy to bang the free speech drum - except for his own workforce? To ask the question is to answer it. But Musk personifies more than his automotive interest and the "classical" extraction of surplus value Tesla operates. A great deal of his interests are tied up in "unconventional" projects, such as the Tesla Semi - an electrically powered truck far less economical than existing diesel-powered machines. There's the Hyperloop, which he conned Las Vegas into letting him build beneath their city. This vision of the future consists of a single lane tunnel one can drive a car around. There's no service tunnel, and the number of the cars on the "track" at any one time are few and far between. A mass transit system with neither the mass nor the transit - a far cry from the 1,124mph pods they're supposed to accommodate.

Other boondoggles include wanting to build a roller coaster in one of his factories, a Bond villain-style lair in an extinct volcano, and a viable space tourism business for his super rich cronies. Amidst the nonsense are projects that might have genuine future use, such as the investments in battery technology, the starlink satellites, and the space infrastructure efforts, even if they're justified in terms of his Mars city fantasies. The point is that, despite some diamonds in the rough, what characterises a lot of Musk's interests is wasteful spending. In his recent sofa-surfer interview he said he didn't live a showy billionaire lifestyle, except for his private plane to get him around. The creation of useless infrastructure beneath Sin City, the carbon emissions from the hundreds of SpaceX launches - including launching a Roadster into orbit around the sun, suggests he has a certain blind spot when it comes to his super wealthy footprint.

But wasteful spending is useful spending from the standpoint of capital. It works as a certain form of trickle down by keeping people in jobs to service their desires. See, for example, the debates around the permanent arms economy during the Cold War and the extent to which this spending settled labour markets and provided multiplier effects for ancillary industries. But more importantly, it's not in capital's interest for it to be invested in stopping world hunger, for example. Doing so would put a floor under global living standards, which in turn would strengthen the hand of labour the world over. That wouldn't appear to make much of a difference to Musk and his high end tech interests, but the flip side of battery and electric vehicle production is resource extraction. Which depends on mining, often by low waged workers in the global south, and workers forced into dangerous and cramped conditions by the threat of economic necessity. At a stroke, the guarantee of safe food, drinking water, and accommodation would up the price of their labour power. Very much not in Musk's interests. But it doesn't have to be direct. Any sort of welfare programme that adds to the collective economic clout of the wage earning class upsets the balance of power between it and capital. It's why people like Musk do nothing to alleviate the lot of the impoverished. Why philanthropists like MacKenzie Scott gives to charity as opposed to organisations building collective capacity and political consciousness, and why here in the UK our billionaire chancellor dispenses loans instead of energy price relief. Wasteful spending buttresses ruling class power. Useful spending undermines it.

Which brings us back to the personality of Musk himself. As the wasteful spender par excellence, his tomfoolery matches his "function". Slapping down tens of billions for a social media platform whose results will never match its valuation typifies his class at this time. With galloping inequality, a raging pandemic, an energy crisis, and the climate change threat demanding resources and answers, the masters of this planet will trash this planet and its people for the most frivolous ends. It's not because they're evil, it's because it's in their interests. And this is going to carry on until we put a stop to them.

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Monday 25 April 2022

The Diminishing Authoritarian Centre

You wouldn't think France had dodged a bullet if you have scanned the copy clattering off centrist laptops since last night. Emmanuel Macron is the first president to be re-elected in 20 years! The first president since De Gaulle to win a second term and enjoy a parliamentary majority! A triumph of common sense! The far right were seen off! The form of words are different, but the content is the same since the consciously elitist and purposely remote Macron won against Le Pen five years ago. To bring matters down to the earth of hard electoral facts, Macron lost eight points and Le Pen gained eight, while some 28% of French voters stayed home. That is to say 28% didn't see much difference between the authoritarian "centre" and the authoritarian right when push came to shove.

Casting our minds back to the previous write up in 2017, it forecast Macron neither understood how he became president nor that his policies - attacking labour, pushing the super rich, ratcheting up the authoritarianism and the racism - would prepare the ground for a future far right advance. Five years that saw this eventuality came to pass. He scraped in this time, and with the added bonus of not tacking left to scoop up Jean-Luc Melanchon supporters from the first round. A result for centrism then. Stick to the centre and leave it to French good sense to see off the far right. What does it matter if almost a third of voters don't turn out? A win is a win is a win.

Can Macron - and France - withstand five more years of complacency? I wouldn't like to chance it, but En Marche strategists looking at the age splits would find encouraging signs. Macron was the solid victor among the pensionable vote, walking away with 71%. This is quite an achievement and easily betters the retiree support the Tories rely on here. The overall property dynamic is not as attenuated as the UK's, but it's reasonable to assume the authoritarian politics the old largely respond to here finds its corollary over the Channel, and for similar reasons. However, despite Macron's anti-democratic tendencies he is no fascist and, when it suits, he portrays himself the heir of the Fifth Republic's secular, liberal virtues and the fact its founding is steeped in Gaullist myth about the man of action, of a leader rising above petty squabbles and acting decisively to save France. It's a peculiar strongmanism Macron leans into, but one with enough nostalgic pull and promise of stability.

And at the other end, there is the young. Again, confounding polling the 18-24s went for Macron by 61% versus Le Pen's 39%. That is, despite the National Front making hay with cost of living issues this direct appeal to their immediate interests fell flat among the two thirds who did vote. It's almost as if the the experience of class and the values arising from this position is not congenial to "post" fascist politics, no matter how much it tries softening its image. For the Macron strategists then, there's nothing to worry about. Unlike Britain where the Tories face a crisis of political reproduction because property, values, and the interests of their existing electoral base puts them at odds with working age people, not just the young, in France it appears the Macron-positive elderly will be replaced by the Macron-positive young.

A couple of points to skew this conclusion. For one, as explained previously, there are alternatives to voting for the least worst option and 41% of 18-24 year olds took it: they abstained. This exodus from engagement with establishment politics is more likely to benefit the left and the street movements, but it presents a problem of political reproduction of the Macron vote. If virtually-certain-to-vote pensioners are "replaced" by much more hesitant and conditional younger voters, the job of facing down a far right challenge next time becomes harder. Not as acute as the position the Tories are in, but enough to present the Macron project significant difficulties. Second, because working age cohorts between 25 and 64 found Le Pen much more congenial, the more the President keeps banging his public sector reform/working class bashing drum, the more he'll drive the opposition. One would hope this would go left, and with the good showing for Melanchon in the first round there are good opportunities for the left to build and intersect with this discontent. Plus the disproportionate support among younger voters, especially those coming of age between now and the next presidential elections, puts the left - assuming Macron stays his ruinous course - in with a shout of getting into the second round. But this is by no means a guarantee. Five more years of crackdowns, aloof government, and galloping prices could spur resentment to drive enough voters into the camp of reaction.

As for Macron's cheerleaders here, there is some recognition that things cannot go on as they are. And they are right to be worried. Given the dynamics this election has revealed, the next presidential election could see a left versus right battle with Macron's successor dumped out in the first round. That would not only underline the bankruptcy of centrist politics, but put them on the spot. Would our assorted liberal and centrist heroes advocate a vote for the leftist candidate to keep the fascist out? Going from our experiences during the Corbyn years, we know what the answer will be.

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Sunday 24 April 2022

Angela Rayner Vs Institutional Sexism

During the Brexit wars, the Mail on Sunday was held up as the less frothing counterpart to its week day sibling. In the years since, it's much harder to maintain that distinction. Where the Daily Mail goes low, it seems the Sunday edition is determined to go lower. The latest evidence is this exhibit which, in all seriousness, accuses Angela Rayner of a "Basic Instinct" ploy to distract Boris Johnson at Prime Minister's Questions. The evidence? That she, like dozens of other women MPs, wears skirts to work.

According to an unnamed Tory MP, Rayner deliberately crosses and uncrosses her legs to throw Johnson off his stride because "she can't compete with Boris Johnson's Oxford Union debating skills." Would these be the same "skills" that sees him refusing to answer questions, and relying on clumsy stratagems to get himself out of a tight spot? Would these also be the superlative abilities that, on the occasions he's faced Rayner across the dispatch box, have seen him come off worse more often than not? Reading the article is to immerse yourself in the snobbery rife among the Tories and their friendly press stenographers. No Mail article (nor, for that matter, anything printed in the right wing papers) can fail to mention her leaving school at 16, being a teenaged mum and a grandmother, and having worked in care. They cannot hide their distaste that someone from the lower orders has made it without the advantages their backgrounds gave them. She provokes a realisation among the well-heeled that they mainly owe their position to their position, not skill, grit, or talent.

The attack on Rayner has a context: the culture of sexism that remains rife on the parliamentary estate. Reporting in today's papers, five senior politicians - three Tory, two Labour - face allegations of sexual harassment out of 56 MPs reported to parliament's Independent Complaints and Grievances Scheme. This follows the conviction of sex offender MP Imran Ahmed Khan (who still hasn't resigned) and fellow Tory David Warburton who, among other things, faces sexual misconduct allegations. Whether its MPs and politicos supplying info to the lecherous "Tottywatch" feature on Guido Fawkes (updated as recently as two days ago) to the harassment of support staff to the way parliamentarians reinforce sexist perceptions of female politicians, there is an obvious problem.

The Mail on Sunday are reactionary, but it's not stupid. They knew the story would raise the heckles. If that was the intention, it certainly helped generate a few more hits for the website. But if it was done with a view to taking the heat off Johnson's difficulties, it hasn't. While the story has excited Twitter it did not make the Sunday politics shows - but it might rebound on the MoS access to Westminster, and Johnson himself has been forced to issue a condemnation "deploring the misogyny" the paper directed at Rayner. Even he can see the suggestion of "being distracted" by a pair of legs reflects poorly on him. A reminder, in case it is needed, that establishment politics is not a seamless whole with masterminds scurrying around and covering every angle. Gambits can backfire, and this is definitely one of them.

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Saturday 23 April 2022

Remembering the ZX Spectrum

Thinking about the first video game I ever played, it was probably either Space Invaders at Heanor swimming baths or Phoenix at the Saundersfoot amusement arcade. But the first time seeing and having a go on a computer? That's a difficult one. I can vaguely recall the BBC Micro appearing at primary school with the Derbyshire County Council logo displayed whenever software was loaded up from the five-and-a-half inch floppy discs. Whether that was before or after leaving infants, I'm not sure. But the other front runner was a machine my comparatively more affluent cousins had installed downstairs in the kitchen diner: a rubber keyed 48k ZX Spectrum. I recall seeing it, playing the unofficial Return of the Jedi speeder simulator, Deathchase, and then not showing much of an interest. That was until a couple of years later when everyone had a computer of some description, except for us. And it was many, many years before a computer came my way.

That computer was the aforementioned Speccy, celebrating its 40th anniversary today. For some reason, the cousins gave it to me and no longer did I have to rely on the willingness of friends to let me play on their machines. My brother and I had our own piece of gaming kit at last, and we would certainly have had our money's worth if we'd actually paid for it. This time was early autumn 1989. The Speccy was still doing well sales-wise, but was looking long in the tooth. A plucky underdog versus the brash American bread bin that was the Commodore 64, which arrived in August 1982, and Alan Sugar's CPC range of computers. But against the 16-bit computers, which arrived in the mid 80s, and the Japanese games consoles which were taking their first steps to market dominance in the UK at the time, the Speccy looked ancient and tired. It was easy to look down on and frequently was, but it sparked a revolution.

Until the Sega Megadrive came along, the Spectrum was the best-selling home machine in this country. It was cheap and, more importantly, very cheerful. Games were inexpensive, topping out at around £9.99 in the late 80s (which is what I got my copy of Robocop for). There were hundreds of titles available at any one time on budget release at the £1.99 - £2.99 price points, and even more for the cost of a blank tape and the use of a twin deck recorder. I may have acquired my copy of Commando through such means. And even though the Spectrum was to other machines what the Sinclair C5 was to the Vauxhall Cavalier, the games were where it excelled. Despite its primitive countenance - a palette of seven colours, low memory and feeble sound chip (the last two getting corrected in the 128k Speccy reboot) - playability-wise its titles stood toe to toe with its C64 rival. The aforementioned Robocop and the adaptation of Taito's Chase HQ were two such triumphal moments in the war with Commodore's machine.

In official history the Speccy is a lot of things. The catalyst for the UK's computer industry, and a distillation of Thatcherism's entrepreneurial spirit. Both claims need heavily qualifying. For one, there were rivals aplenty for the Spectrum's share of the market in 1982. Sinclair's business model involved trying to do everything as cheaply as possible to depress cost, which led to significant reliability problems with its earlier ZX81 and the notorious RAM expansion pack that did not fit the port properly. Had the Spectrum not materialised, there was more scope for the barely remembered Oric and Dragon computers to do well. Atari's 8-bit range was present, the Acorn Electron came just under a year after the Speccy, and perhaps a pre-eminent position for the C64 and more elbow room for Amstrad, who suffered from being the last main micro to market, would have been outcomes of the Spectrum's absence. What the Spectrum catalysed, precisely because it was cheaper than its rivals, was the home coding scene that launched hundreds of companies and the careers of thousands of programmers. This would have happened had other machines filled the void, but differently. Some classic games and starts in the industry may never have happened, and the disproportionate clout British coding enjoys now might not be as expansive as it is. Second, we forget that Sinclair Research, previously Sinclair Instrument and Science of Cambridge, was set up as a parachute company in case Clive Sinclair's Sinclair Radionics went belly up. It did, despite being in receipt of state money, and some of the capital that kept the company afloat between 1977 and its dissolution in 1979 went into the side company, which supported the research underpinning the ZX range of computers. In other words, the state part facilitated this Thatcherite success story.

But what is often not mentioned, amid the business-friendly histories of the machine, is its popular cultural impact. Almost immediately there were the subcultures and playground wars, the fanzines and magazines and their loyal readerships. But more than any other machine it generalised the video game as a cultural form. British kids would have had some exposure to computers thanks to the installation of BBC machines in schools, but for those who were not technically minded nor especially interested in programming the Spectrum opened imaginations to entirely new experiences. That's what captivated me, the opportunity to ride a motorbike, pilot a space ship, defend Earth from aliens, race cars, be a hero, and inhabit completely unique spaces with no real world analogues, such as the platform game, the isometric adventure, the puzzler. These are experiences that were new and only possible with the advent of mass computing. As such there probably hasn't been a machine before or since with the sheer range of games, some of which defined and refined genres while others offered weird and unusual experiences not repeated since. The lawn mowing of Advanced Lawnmower Simulator, the teeth cleaning of Molar Maul, the pranking of Skool Daze are just a few of the hundreds of examples.

It was not just the imagination the Spectrum opened, but an imaginary. Technology frequently conditions outlooks and frames perceptions. How many people think about what they see in terms of how something might look on Instagram, or have a brainwave while having a conversation thinking 'that line would work on Twitter'. Millions do. The Spectrum set up (low) standards of what to expect from the limited power of the machine. Games that pushed at those limits and defied them, or in some way captured the character of conversions from arcades or other, more capable machines, butted against and redefined that imaginary. The ethic of technical virtuosity, whether displayed through graphical trickery or sound or solid, dependable game mechanics, has conditioned the video game imaginary generally. Then there is habitus, an inculcation of a whole set of dispositions, aptitudes, doxas, and preferences that simply did not exist before the home micro revolution. The emergence of genres and mechanic conventions within games are key here. Hegemonic were those who tended to replicate arcade games and this remained the case up until the PlayStation era, but other genres that were distant from those experiences were popular and well received. The Football Manager series, the classic space trading/privateer game Elite, and tactical skirmish games like Laser Squad spring to mind. As game types became more refined, players' expectations grew more structured. Playing new games was never a year zero affair with the acquisition of skill and experience, but with that accumulation of gaming knowledge preferences grew stronger, consciously and unconsciously, and in turned conditioned the experiences gamers desired on and after the Spectrum. In other words, the Spectrum was the gateway for millions into a whole set of practices that are a major component of our culture industry today. Most former Speccy owners are now aged between their early 40s and mid 60s, and there's a very good chance most of them have carried on gaming in some form in the years since.

Eventually, my rubber keyed Speccy went back to the cousins. It is still probably boxed up, stuffed with some other tat in a seldom-visited corner of the loft. It went because it was replaced by a 128k. It was a +2a, easily the best looking micro then on the market with a black case, black keys, and a blood red Sinclair logo. Unfortunately, its built in tape deck rendered it very unreliable. Machine number one broke and went back, as did machine number two. They got swapped for a C64 and after similar troubles, they went back twice before getting dumped completely for a Megadrive. The one I still have and works fine after 30 years. Yet even with games ahead of anything on the Speccy, its memory always tugged at me. The fun with JetPac, the sandbox of Rescue, and the frustrations that came with the Speccy - the awful games, the titles that refused to take advantage of the 128k's increased capabilities, and worst of all - waiting 10 minutes for a game to load and it flat out refusing to work. The Spectrum has long gone to silicon heaven, save for a dynamic afterlife among hardcore hobbyists still developing games and retro gamers not keen on the involved experiences a lot of gaming offers today, but it's still structuring popular culture, albeit our nostalgic reflections of what misrepresents itself as a rose-tinted simpler time.

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Wednesday 20 April 2022

Timing the Non-Apology

Befuddlement is everywhere in politics right now. No one can explain why Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, when the application of common sense would have told him it was destined to be a costly mess. No one knows why the Tories haven't given Boris Johnson the heave ho, with some political science explainerers putting it down to "magical thinking" (in fact, entirely realist concerns are in play). And to the miasma of mystery we can add another: why has Johnson apologised for his first rule breach when more are to come?

This was the centrepiece of yesterday's performances in the Commons, and Keir Starmer went in on it heavily for Prime Minister's Questions. Johnson affected his humble tone and wore his sorrowful face, only to discard both at last night's meeting of Tory MPs where, without the cameras watching, he bounced around in his usual ebullient way blaming everyone but himself for breaking the Covid rules he decided and implemented. The arrogance of someone who didn't think their behaviour in front of his lackeys wouldn't get widely reported and picked up by the Leader of the Opposition. But it's what one might expect from a Prime Minister who has led a consequence-free life and stands every chance of keeping his job. Still, apart from the loyalists who are incontinently noisy about their support, most Tories are waiting to see how the local elections go (which, fortunately for Johnson, don't hold much scope for huge Labour advances into their local government fiefdoms). After that there's the outcome of the Wakefield by-election to look forward to, but that depends on whenever Imran Ahmed Khan makes good on his promise to resign. Their mood is changeable if events don't go Johnson's way, and so the vulnerability remains.

This still begs the question: why apologise now with more fines, revelations, Sue Gray's report, and perhaps photos to come? To try and kill it as a story. The Johnson line, which on the face of it does not sound unreasonable, is that he was at work and was effectively ambushed by a cake. It was those pesky little people in Number 10 who got the Prime Minister into hot water - an account supported by the same fine issued to Rishi Sunak, who just happened to be passing. It was an accident for which he should not be punished beyond the fixed penalty notice. By repeating this story, this is what Johnson's handlers want mentioned in every broadcast defence to the point that enough of the public look on, conclude it wasn't his fault, and move on. With this lodged in the popular imagination and hoping for story fatigue, when the next round of fines are imposed the hope is the public won't care, won't be motivated enough to scrutinise Johnson's behaviour - which involved instigating a leaving do and, apparently, partying with guests in the Downing Street flat. And so Keir Starmer and the rest will look like clowns trying to capitalise on a relative non-issue while Johnson gets down to the serious business of palling around with Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The timing matters for the gambit Johnson thinks will best suit his chances of survival. And, given the ways things are, he's calculated this move with a good chance of success.

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Tuesday 19 April 2022

The Tory Politics of Back to Work

Haven't we been here before? Boris Johnson rising in the Commons to plead ignorance and make non-apologies for partying in the midst of the Covid crisis? Of opposition leaders urging him to resign? Of backbench Conservative MPs inventively finding a reason, any reason, to shield their boss from the sack? The scenes we witnessed in the Commons this Tuesday afternoon are reminiscent of scenes that have played that hallowed chamber before, and undoubtedly will again at Prime Minister's Questions and the "free vote" determining whether Johnson lied to the House this Thursday. It's all a bit of history repeating, of a Groundhog Day in which the same arguments and excuses are aired at and the end of it, the conclusion is the same: Johnson survives the day. Then it all starts up again.

This isn't just a property of the PartyGate saga: it's a feature characteristic of Conservative Party politics lately. The war on woke, the difficulties over "levelling up", the endless demonisation of refugees - unless they're Ukrainian. They have the privilege of navigating the Home Office's Kafkaesque bureaucracy. And another Tory hobby horse recycled its way back onto the front page of the Telegraph this morning: people not being in the workplaces. This time, Jacob Rees-Mogg is having a go: he's issued an expectation that civil servants should be back at their desks now that we're "learning to live with Covid." Just don't talk about the 482 reported dead over the last 24 hours.

The report discusses departmental league tables showing the Departments of International Trade and Health at the top with 73% and 72% back in on any given day, while at the bottom are the DWP at 27% and Education at 25%. In fact, what the report doesn't say is most civil servants are heading back to the offices with most being expected to come in at least twice a week. Quoting Lucille Thirlby of the First Division Association, the union of senior officials, she said "If they are still delivering the work of the department, the minister and the government of the day, why does it matter where people work from? Why does that concern ministers?"

What is Rees-Mogg's argument? It's very similar to points repeatedly made by Rishi Sunak. We need to "realise the benefits of face-to face, collaborative working", ensure taxpayer value, and "the wider benefits for the economy." The Conservative Friends of Costa strike again. Given how city centre economies are hugely dependent on so-called anchor institutions, landlords big and small, as well as franchise holders and shopkeepers need the at-work spend of civil servants. And as they disproportionately support the Tories, the government has to throw them a bone.

But there are wider politics too. The first directly impinge on class relations. For all the utopian talk of the death of the office in the early phases of the pandemic, having people working from home and managing their work at their pace was always going to induce chills and sweats among hyper class conscious layers of Tory politicians. For one, without constant supervision by watchful managers they might spend time doing things other than their work. Stuff like spending more time with their family, taking time off in the day to binge watch a box set or muck around on the internet. Even worse, some might discover how much of their work is entirely unnecessary and that divorced from the context of the workplace appears nothing more than a time sink at best, or at worse an example of anti-production - tasks that are pointless apart from being a manifestation of work discipline and control. For millions of workers, not just in the civil service, the transition from at-home work to flexible working suits their lives better and allows for self-organisation. Something any Tory would find hard to stomach: if work is set up to suit them, what demands might they make next?

In addition to keeping the political imaginary tightly circumscribed, there are the more conventional politics to consider - which scream loudly from the Telegraph's reportage. This comment from a "Whitehall source" leap out:
The whole of the country is getting back to normal. This feels out of step with the rest of the country – who after all pay for the existence of the civil service – who have been back in their offices working very hard for quite a while now.

There is another side of it – it feels that, in some cases, it is a minority of really hard-working officials who are in the office all the time and a silent majority of people aren't pulling their weight.
It's our old friend divide and rule. With the Tories beset by crisis, there are perceived political profits to be had from attacking the civil service as feckless and lazy. Setting them up as an out group worked well when the Tories came for them in the 1980s and 90s, and during the Dave and Osborne austerity years, so there is a folk memory, albeit one that only resonates among core supporters, to draw from. But if the civil service unions dig their feet in, and they should, there's an opportunity for more beggar-thy-neighbour politics. You're going into work, so why should they get to stay at home? An industrial dispute fought on these sorts of terms is a story that writes itself for the tabloids, and gives the Tories a chance to condemn Labour over its relationship to the unions - even though none of the civil service unions are affiliated to the party. Who cares about the details? This is a handy fight to provoke if the only feasible political strategy the Tories have left is a core vote plus Brexit vote gambit, hoping those who supported them in 2019 can be kept aboard by dirty tricks and scapegoating.

Could it work? The fight over deporting asylum seekers, the government's drip, drip attacks on trans people, the scraps with the liberal establishment, and every other bit of friction the government are working up into a blaze are all distractions. In the short term they're there to protect Johnson, but in the longer term it's about keeping them in office by, effectively, ensuring everything is debated and dissected except for their record.

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Sunday 17 April 2022

Class Conscience and the Church of England

The Church of England, it used to be said, was the Tory party at prayer. Inbetween the pews and the pulpit, this was the place tens of thousands of Tory members and supporters found one another in the early to mid parts of the 20th century and knitted the organisation together. Particularly in the expanding suburbs from the 1930s to the 1960s, and for scattered but big C Conservative congregations in rural areas the local church was a community focus. It's no accident that there is a relationship between falling church attendance and declining Tory membership from the 1950s on. Indeed, what was once an intimate relationship is now something of an estrangement. Rather than recalling maids cycling through the mist, contemporary Tories are more likely to curl their lips when the CofE gets a mention. And this is because the Tory imaginary sees the Church as an opponent. Like schools and universities, the Church of England is a peddler of the woke ideology.

The furore around Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby's Easter sermon is a case in point. Pulling no punches, the Tories' Rwanda asylum plan is unChristian. He said the "sub-contracting out our responsibilities ... is the opposite of the nature of God." He added that it's
... so depressing and distressing this week to find that asylum seekers fleeing war, famine and oppression from deeply, deeply troubled parts of the world will not be treated with the dignity and compassion that is the right of every human being, and instead of being dealt with quickly and efficiently here on our soil will be shipped to Rwanda.
Not helpful to the Tory project.

An intervention like this is nothing new. In 2020 and from his kitchen, Welby's Easter sermon concentrated on Covid and warned against post-pandemic public spending cuts. In 2018 he criticised Brexit divisions and how Tory austerity was "crushing the weak". And after a year in the job, in 2014 he called on the government to fund food banks after the Tories turned down EU money for them. His predecessor, Rowan Williams, took up similar concerns during the Blair/Brown years - particularly with regard to Iraq. And in the Thatcher years, Robert Runcie's criticisms of inner city poverty so irked the Tories that Norman Tebbit floated the idea of disestablishing the Church. The next world and this don't mix, apparently.

The idea the Church is some liberal bastion really dates from George Carey's spell at the helm. In the 1990s there were key debates around the ordination of women and the Christian attitude to homosexuality. The tabloids had turned against the Tories at this point, but they enthusiastically piled in against the Church's perceived liberal agenda. When sex offenders among the clergy were uncovered, they reported it with alacrity. Typical of this was the feeding frenzy over the Nine O'Clock Service. Attracting adverse coverage for marrying rave to Christian worship throughout the early 90s, the press went into overdrive when allegations of abuse and improper conduct came to light. Any old rope would do as the moral guardians of Fleet Street took on the hypocrisies of state-sponsored religion. But ultimately, prurient copy on clerical sex crimes was concerned with more than satisfying an appetite for scandal, it was about discrediting an institution whose values put it at odds with the authoritarian and atomising project the Tory press were committed to. Are still committed to.

The funny thing is the Church of England wasn't and doesn't raise concerns because of "liberalism" or "wokeism", even if its Archbishops are drawn almost entirely from liberal backgrounds (Rowan Williams once described himself as a "bearded leftie"). The CofE is merely reflecting its constitutional role as part of the state. Marx and Engels talked about the state being the general committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. In Britain it's best to think of the state as a system, a constellation of semi-autonomous and relatively autonomous institutions subject to the authority of the executive - the government - and whose affects are the reproduction of the class relations that underpin the show. The CofE's role has been to confer the constitutional set up and, ultimately, class rule with heavenly blessings. An ideological state apparatus in the most literal sense. The Monarch, as head of state and head of the church unites God's will and the popular will in one office, ensuring harmony between the secular and the spiritual. But the Church has always been more than a constitutional prop for legitimation purposes. It is a class conscience too.

The divergence between the Church and the Tory party preceded Thatcher by around two decades. Michael Ramsey, who was Archbishop between 1961 and 1974 and his successor Donald Coggan, who held the office until 1980, were known for also having relatively relaxed attitudes toward the ordination of women and homosexuality, and both publicly opposed racism when this was not de jure in establishment circles. Ramsey, for example, suggested the armed overthrow of Ian Smith in white supremacist Rhodesia was justifiable on Christian grounds - cue right wing hysterics. But also both were concerned with the consequences of mass consumption and the privatisation of life. And they were right to be. It didn't lead to a crueller society, but certainly meant there were fewer bums on seats for Sunday service. What concerned them was how this process, which contributed to what came later, might be loosening the grip of religion on the public imaginary. This spiritual weakening would have knock on effects where it came to families, crime, sexual morality, and communitarian values. Indeed, if anything this was the spur for the conservative Festival of Light and the resurgence of evangelical Christianity in the 1970s and 80s. But the CofE were concerned not just because it meant its institutional power was waning, but also that integration into (bourgeois) norms and values might become jeopardised. It had no choice but to raise the alarm, regardless of what the government of the day was thinking or doing, because it foresaw a potential danger that more radical forces might fill.

The same is true of Welby's pronouncements this last decade. Undoubtedly, as a Christian he feels personally obligated for speaking on behalf of those not afforded mainstream platforms and write ups in the papers. His patricianism and attempts to shame the Tories into doing the right thing is, again, a warning. Don't create hated out groups and clearly defined minorities, because that logic could rebound on the party of the one per cent. Don't hammer poor people lest they become the ones who do the hammering. At each stage, the public display of Christian conscience has a class content - a content that criticises the government not because the CofE want to build a woke utopia by smashing capitalism, but precisely because its messianic mission is to save it. Unfortunately for Welby and the Church, the Tories aren't interested. They're annoyed by suggestions there are great gaping chasms between what they do and what Jesus said in the Bible, but appeals to the divine won't get Boris Johnson and cronies to change course. If the Archbishop, in the final analysis, attends to the common outlook of the bourgeois, by their actions the Tories are chiefly interested in the sectional interests of the City, of commercial capital, and of property wealth - big and small. They've got the authoritarian politics and the big stick if the state is challenged. As far as they're concerned, Welby is just another wet wipe. A minor distraction from their missionary zeal for their one true God: perpetual political office.

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Local Council By-Elections April 2022

This month saw 18,458 votes cast over 13 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Overall, seven council seats changed hands. For comparison with March's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Apr 21

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There was one Independent clash
**** Others this month consists of the Liberal Party (84) and TUSC (46).

April is traditionally a quiet month as by-elections are held over for local election day. By my reckoning there are 52 such contests to look forward to on 5th May, hence why we're doing the results round up now - there are no more contests to be had. A short month, but a not great one for the Conservatives as they head into the locals four councillors down and only a gain from Labour in the High Peak to console them (Labour took one back from them, extending the party's run without a net loss to a whopping three months). Again, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens gain from the Tories' expense - fitting the analysis pushed here many times about where they should be putting their resources.

In all, not much can be taken from these results. Though it's worth noting the Tory performance, in vote terms, is quite low as revealed by their vote average per contest. A sign that the cost of living crisis and everything else is biting into their local government support? We'll see next month when the main event rolls in.

7th April
Dorset: Lyme and Charmouth, Grn gain from Con
East Riding of Yorkshire: South Hunsley, LDem gain from Con
High Peak: Cote Heath, Con gain from Lab
Horsham: Storrington and Washington, Grn gain from Con
Liverpool: Everton, Lab hold
Liverpool: Warbreck, Lab hold
Mid Devon: Cullompton South, LDem gain from Ind
Telford and Wrekin: Brookside, Lab hold
Wolverhampton: East Park, Lab hold

14th April
Durham: West Auckland, Lab gain from Con
Maldon: Heybridge West, LDem gain from Ind
Surrey Heath: Bisley and West End, LDem gain from Con
Tewkesbury: Brockworth East, Ind hold

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