Monday 30 May 2022

Will Dumping Johnson Save the Tories?

If a week is a long time, a month is an eternity in politics. May has had elections that were hard for the Tories, Johnson faced down the Met investigation and Sue Gray's report into PartyGate, and survived, but not without damage. Rishi Sunak began the month saying he couldn't do anything to help people with the cost of living, only to find that he sort of can. There's been policy announcements that make the Conservatives look like the nasty party, and to top it off YouGov's MRP of battleground marginals and red wall seats found the government would lose 85 out of the 88 if the election was held today. Not good news. But hope springs eternal from the Tory breast, and the two centuries of their modern existence shows an uncanny ability to bounce back from uncertain scrapes. Despite the polling, might this be one of them?

Writing in April for Conservative Home, former Theresa May advisor and pollster James Johnson believes there are grounds for Tory optimism. Surveying the wreckage ahead of four calamitous weeks, he argues the Conservative Party's problems can be laid at a single door: Boris Johnson's. All the policies that are good ideas, such as, ahem, transporting refugees to Rwanda, are immediately given short shrift because the Prime Minister is fronting it. Were this article written over the weekend, the lack of poll movement after Sunak's "generosity" would probably merit the same explanation. But! James notes, there's every reason to believe the party brand is intact. "There is no deep-seated hostility to the Conservative Party as a whole amongst voters – certainly nothing like there was in the 1990s."

What should we make of this? The evidence offered is thin. There's a focus group anecdote, how Johnson is trailing Keir Starmer in most metrics, and that Conservative Home readers rate most cabinet members more highly than the Prime Minister. For a pollster with access to reams of data, including, one would assume, the stats on party standing and reputation, this is thin gruel indeed.

There are a couple of points worth noting here. Johnson has come to dominate the Tory Party in ways previous leaders have not, though James's former boss tried the same with her cringe rebrand of the Tories as 'Theresa May's Team' for the duration of the 2017 election - a trick copied from Ruth Davidson. And so the argument might be made that damage to him doesn't necessarily tarnish the party. This is doubtful: ordinary punters tend not to make distinctions between the party and who leads them very often, and even if they did Johnson is defended day-in, day-out by his lieutenants and satraps on the news. His dishonesty and disassembling becomes theirs, and reflects on the party. Second, one only has to look at the policy clown show pushed by cabinet members. Privatising Channel Four when there's no support for it? Slashing the civil service for no good reason? And bringing back imperial weights and measures certainly won't win over any new supporters. If a party consistently does bad things, or refuses to help people as the Tories have done this will be a drag on "the brand".

The second problem, as Johnson acknowledged on the morning after his election, was that many of his party's new voters supported him on the condition he honoured their Brexit vote. The levelling up vapourware is his effort to try and keep them on board with something that might look like what Labour would do in office. The point is, in 2019 Johnson was the best asset his party had. And he carried on being so right through to the Owen Paterson affair and PartyGate. He was the Tory leader who reached parts other Tory leaders couldn't, to borrow the boring and overused Heineken mantra. If he brought new supporters in because he proved he was serious about Brexit, why would those people suddenly come back if Johnson gets replaced? Is Liz Truss going to order air strikes on Brussels?

The Tories' problems are compounding. Long trailing among working age people, their policy agenda makes life more difficult for workers, those in receipt of social security, and the young. Delaying welfare uplifts and imposing the National Insurance increase just as inflation is biting is not a recipe for reversing fortunes. And among the old, the bedrock of their coalition, the cost of living crisis is pounding cracks into its edifice. Small pieces are dropping off to be picked up by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, while bigger chunks are wobbling, unsure which way they're going to fall. The Tories can only win if they absolutely dominate the elderly and do well among older working age people. At the moment they seem a million miles away from this, making 2024 a difficult prospect. And after that, who knows what may befall them? One thing is certain. Their difficulties are much deeper than what a change of leadership can fix.

Image Credit

Saturday 28 May 2022

Is Rishi Dishy Again?

Of late, the chancellor has had a brusing time. How to get back on top of the ratings? We don't know the findings of his half-a-million pound focus groups aimed at improving his image, but perhaps doing something to address the cost of living scored more highly among their priorities than photos in his casual clothing. I'm not saying Rishi Sunak announced his package of measures to ease energy price rises to put him back into contention for the Prime Minister's job, but like unveiling it the day after Sue Gray's report the timing was politically fortuitous.

No one's going to turn their nose up at seeing their bills depressed by at least £400, but let's not play kiddum here. With the energy price cap galloping upwards from £1,971 now (itself a rise of £700 on the previous figure) to £2,800 in October, when those bills come in all households are going to be out of pocket. Sunak's "largesse" won't stop some from going to the wall, even though the poorest household qualify for more support with "grants" worth £650. Welcome upratings to pensions and other social security support are due next year as well, but they have problems too.

So when is a grant not a grant? What Sunak and the Treaury team are desperate to claim Labour, with its own windfall tax policy, had nothing to do with bouncing them into this position. But some serious thought has gone into ensuring this "giveaway" is entirely consistent with the Tory politics of offering nothing. That is the consistent strategy they have employed since Boris Johnson was elected to say a great deal, but ensuring any popular concession is begrudging and cannot be a handle for either empowering those below or encouraging them to ask for more. Sunak's ill-fated energy bill loan was very much of this character, yet even he was alive to the difficulties of it adding payback to living costs in the long run - just in time for the general election. The loan element has gone, but the method is the same. Deducting the "windfall" at source removes any agency on the part of the populace, and while it will provide relief for some the fact it's going to get smothered bill increases anyway just reinforces the sense that nothing can be done: that politics and political decisions are things done to us, not something we can articulate and prosecute ourselves. Sunak gets the headlines but the fundamentals of Johnsonian statecraft remain unperturbed. And what do you know, for their pains and as a big thankyou the Chancellor has given the oil companies a very generous tax break - a 91p saving - for every pound invested in the UK. Jolly decent of him.

The problem Sunak has is reverberations among the Tory ranks. There are reports of bank bench muttering about "socialism", others doubting the Chancellor's small state credentials, and the concern the Tories have too readily given in to Labour pressure. There are worries it could stoke inflation, because it's always caused by people having too much money and never price setting by the bosses. And where there's high inflation, the pressure piles on the Bank of England to raise interest rates, which then damages mortgage holders and all of a sudden the Tory strategy of basing everything on property owners starts looking shaky. Unlike Johnson's levelling up scheme, which is accepted by most Tory MPs because it's amounting to nothing, Sunak has actually done something and they don't like it. Whether this will add to the restive mood among some of the backbenchers remains to be seen, but it can't do his leadership ambitions any good when the time comes.

Sunak's reputation with his honourable members isn't great then, but has his announcements repaired his image with the wider public? There are two difficulties here. First, after his ridiculous "computer says no" argument that he can't uprate social security immediately has unnecessarily created the perception of meanness at the moment of danger for millions of people dependent on these payments. This contrasts with the timeliness of the job retention scheme and other support packages as Covid took off. When they do come through next year, few will turn around and thank the chancellor for his generosity. Second, precisely because of his preferred method of deducting the money from the bill, because they're rising anyway the windfall tax will get missed. When the bills are hiked again in October, the increase will obviously be noticed - not the intervention aimed at depressing the charges. Let Sunak enjoy the warm bath of the Tory editorials for now, the electorate will pour a cold shower in due course.

Friday 27 May 2022

Local Council By-Elections May 2022

This month saw 123,839 votes cast over 63 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Overall, 18 council seats changed hands. For comparison with April's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- May 21

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were four independent clashes
**** Others running this month were Reform UK (36, 107, 35), and TUSC (69)

While the local authority elections proper were a mixed bag for Labour, local council by-election results are, for once, a source of unalloyed joy. I haven't looked in the archive but it's been a very long time since it enjoyed such a popular vote lead over the Tories and headed the pack with councillors scooped up. Undoubtedly, having so many by-elections on the same day as the councils helped but a win is a win. Meanwhile the Tories drop 12 seats, their worst result since December, and outside of election day their performance has been pretty poor.

Here, the story was less a case of the Liberal Democrats and Greens scooping up loads of seats - this time they took a backseat to Labour. Chances are because of the number of safe Labour fortresses were up, but the big story is the slow reconquest of the red wall, one ward at a time. With a load of Tory defences coming up in June, they'll get their chance to inflict more welcome pain.

5th May
Allerdale, St Michaels, Lab hold
Basingstoke & Deane, Whitchurch, Overton & Laverstock, Ind hold
Blackburn & Darwen, Roe Lee, Lab hold
Brighton & Hove, Rottingdean Coastal, Lab gain from Con
Calderdale, Ovenden, Lab hold
Cambridge, Arbury, Lab hold
Cambridge, West Chesterton, Lab hold
Carlisle, Longtown & The Border, LDem gain from Con
Chelmsford, Little Baddow, Danbury and Sandon, Con hold
Cheltenham, College, LDem hold
Cherwell, Launton & Otmoor, LDem gain from Con
Colchester, New Town & Christ Church, Lab gain from LDem
Derbyshire Dales, Carsington Water, Con hold
Dudley, Halesowen South, Con hold
Epping Forest, Waltham Abbey North East, Con hold
Exeter, Exwick, Lab hold
Exeter, Heavitree, Grn gain from Lab
Exeter, Pennysylvania, Lab hold
Exeter, Priory, Lab hold
Harlow, Toddbrook, Lab gain from Con
Harrogate, Wathvale, Con hold
Hartlepool, Rural West, Con hold
Hyndburn, St Oswalds, Con gain from Lab
Ipswich, St Johns, Lab hold
Leeds, Horsforth, Lab gain from Con
Leeds, Roundhay, Lab hold
Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Benwell & Scotswood, Lab hold
North East Lincolnshire, East Marsh, LDem hold
Oldham, Medlock Vale, Lab gain from Con
Pendle, Barrowford & Pendleside, Con hold
Pendle, Vivary Bridge, Con hold
Peterborough, Fletton & Stanground, LDem hold
Preston, Brookfield, Lab hold
Redditch, Greenlands, Lab hold
Rutland, Uppingham, LDem gain from Grn
Sevenoaks, Fawkham & West Kingsdown, Con hold
South Norfolk, Mulbarton & Stoke Cross, LDem hold
South Ribble, Earnshaw Bridge, Lab hold
South Tyneside, Harton, Lab hold
Southampton, Shirley, Lab hold
Southend-on-Sea, Victoria, Lab hold
Staffordshire Moorlands, Cheadle South East, Con gain from Ind
Three Rivers, Gade Valley, LDem hold
Trafford, Gorse Hill, Lab hold
Vale of White Horse, Steventon & The Hanneys, LDem gain from Con
Walsall, Willenhall South, Lab hold
Welwyn Hatfield, Handside, LDem hold
West Lancashire, Burscough East, Lab hold
West Lancashire, Wrightington, Con hold
Wigan, Leigh East, Lab hold
Wirral, Birkenhead & Tranmere, Grn hold
Worcester, Nunnery, Lab gain from Con
Worthing, Castle, Lab gain from Con

12th May
Lewes, Peacehaven West, Lab gain from Con
Waverley, Frensham, Dockenfield & Tilford, Ind gain from Con

19th May
Lancaster, Ellel, Grn gain from Con

25th May
Spelthorne, Laleham and Shepperton Green, Grn gain from Con

26th May
City of London, Aldersgate, Ind hold
City of London, Cornhill, Ind hold
City of London, Cordwainer, Ind hold
Gedling, Gedling, Lab hold
North Kesteven, Sleaford Quarrington & Mareham, Ind gain from Con
Redbridge, Mayfield, Lab hold x3

Wednesday 25 May 2022

Toasting Sue Gray

There was vomit, there were fights, there was red wine spilled on the carpet. Sue Gray was unsparing in the detail highlighted in her long awaited report, but when all is said and done Boris Johnson remains in situ. His high risk strategy of kicking PartyGate into the long grass worked. First, Gray was appointed to investigate the goings ons in Number 10 during national lockdowns, giving Johnson breathing space. And when the issue was still hot, he sought to cool if off by getting his mate Cressida to investigate the rule breaking. Unsurprisingly, he was let off with very serious questions hanging over the police investigation. Which are now facing a legal challenge. Johnson doesn't care though. His premiership is safe and the most deadliest danger of his political career averted.

He should also be thanking Sue Gray too. This "unimpeachable" civil servant that Tories have flattered with praise in every interview given since her review got underway also did the Prime Minister a solid. Yes, the detail was excruciating. She did paint a picture of an arrogant operation at the centre of the state behaving as if the rules they thought up and implemented did not apply to them. That the Downing Street's director of ethics brought a karaoke machine to an illegal shindig is almost poetry. There were emails from officials telling staffers not to be seen in flagrante with bottles of wine and party gear. Johnson was present and master of ceremonies at several gatherings, showing without any doubt that he lied his head off from the dispatch box when he claimed "not to know" what was going on. Indeed, he tried the same old shtick during his statement to the Commons this afternoon, pointing out what a warren of corridors and rooms the Downing Street complex is. While Gray reported on the serious failings of the political and official leadership and emphasised their responsibility for this culture, it's hard to disagree with Owen Jones, for instance, that her investigation was anything other than a whitewash.

As with all things, what is not said can be as significant as what is. Like the Met, Gray did not investigate the most egregious case of rule breaking: the ABBA-themed party held to mark the departure of Dominic Cummings. This was organised in the Downing Street flat by Carrie Johnson. It cannot be brushed off as staff exuberance, and the Prime Minister's explanation for his attendance - "conducting a job interview" - is as thin as all his other excuses. But no investigation, commentary, or photos. Gray, who we must remember is a subordinate of Johnson's, steered clear. If one was of a conspiratorial turn of mind, one might link the report's outcomes to Gray's receipt of effusive plaudits.

Johnson is safe for now, and it's unlikely any Tory MP will change their mind once the Privileges Committee delivers its verdict about his lying to the House. But the damage is done. The local election results point to shifts under the surface that could doom the Tories, and a much more serious crisis of legitimacy is gathering strength. To try and put the whole PartyGate business to bed, not-at-all coincidentally the government are announcing a package of measures on Thursday that are supposed to address the cost of living crisis. Which, apparently, will include Labour's windfall tax scheme on the oil companies or something like it. But coming so close and having stubbornly resisted providing help so far, whatever they announce won't erase the memory of Johnson partying while people were stopped from comforting their dying loved ones.

Tuesday 24 May 2022

The Socialist Party/Galloway Love-In

Back in the day, and we're talking back in the day, Militant (as was) looked upon its far left brethren with disdain for all sorts of reasons. One of them was the propensity of other Trotskyist outfits to split all over the place. Taken as evidence of their petit bourgeois composition and orientation, the Revolutionary Socialist League (Militant's "undercover" name) was sturdy and proletarian and didn't do that sort of thing. But then it did and split in 1991, expelling its founder and guru, Ted Grant and his loyalists. In 1997, a small group decamped and set up the short-lived Socialist Democracy Group. Between 1999 and 2001, a group of key cadres from Liverpool were expelled en bloc and were followed out by virtually the entire Scottish organisation. The Socialist Party, as it came to be, helped form the Socialist Alliance, before splitting away from that. In 2009 it formed No2EU with the RMT to contest the European Union elections, which became the basis of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Its arch rivals the Socialist Workers Party joined in, before splitting away in 2017. And then in 2019, the SP proper suffered its most damaging split yet in which the vast bulk of its international organisation, including the electorally successful Irish section and important long-standing cadres in England and Wales were expelled as more or less the final act of the retiring general secretary, Peter Taaffe. Just like the right wing Labour apparatchiks he spent years railing against, Taaffe elected to set fire to his entire organisation rather than face criticism and accountability for the mistakes made on his watch.

And here we are again in 2022, just three years after the dust had settled with another split. Except this time TUSC has elected to split from the People's Alliance of the Left, a new grouping that was set up in conjunction with the new, so-called pop-up parties that emerged from the debris of Corbynism (the Northern Independence Party and the Breakthrough Party), as well as what was left of Left Unity, the small non-Trotskyoid regroupment project that pre-dated the Labour left's resurgence. And why has this split taken place? Here's the statement from LU's Facebook page:
Statement on the Change of Relationship Between the People's Alliance of the Left (PAL) and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).

In February 2022 the majority of member parties of PAL (all except TUSC) decided that they could have no formal association with George Galloway's Workers' Party.

This was because of a number of statements by Galloway and the WP on a wide range of social issues (including, but not limited to, women's rights, trans rights and immigration) which demonstrated politics that are irreconcilable with the policy of those parties or the founding principles of PAL. In addition Galloway and leading WP members had made public statements denigrating a Breakthrough member for being non-binary.

Despite this, and in full knowledge of this decision, the all-Britain TUSC Steering Committee has accepted the request by George Galloway's Workers' Party for formal observer status within TUSC and agreed to attempt to avoid electoral clashes where possible. This creates a formal association between TUSC and the WP which TUSC is aware the majority of the other parties within PAL have decided is incompatible with PAL membership.

As a consequence, the remaining PAL member parties regretfully consider that TUSC has, by its formal association with the WP, removed itself from membership of PAL at national level.

We recognise that TUSC is a coalition of different organisations and individual socialists and trade unionis who in their great majority do not share the politics of George Galloway and the WP, although they are prepared to critically collaborate with it as they (TUSC) consider it to be an organisation with origins in the labour and trade union movement. It will remain open to local PAL party members and supporters to cooperate with those socialists at a local level (provided they are not WP members). However, tere can no longer by any national alliance between PAL and TUSC for so long as it has a formal association with George Galloway's Workers' Party.

23 May 2022
This is fair enough. George Galloway is a British nationalist, one of Putin's useful idiots, and an occasional Tory voter. His so-called Workers' Party of Britain is dominated by the ultra-Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) who, when they're not carrying around their giant portrait of Uncle Joe at London May Day celebrations, spend time denying the mass murders of their hero (the Holodomor? Bad weather! The Great Purge? Model jurisprudence! The Katyn Massacre? The Nazis!) and crossing class lines to support reactionary outfits like the Brexit Party and the Canadian "freedom convoy" movement. Given their appalling politics, it shouldn't be surprising that they've swallowed the Tory/centrist line that the British working class are as backward and as socially conservative as them. The industrial (male) worker figures large in their political imaginary, and the everyday politics they push is a nationalist tinged version of post-war Labourism. It's worth noting the last minor party that had some success with such a stance was the British National Party.

The PAL parties are right to want nothing to do with Galloway and his acolytes. Their politics aren't just wrong - in words and deeds they're scabby. But that begs the question, why does the Socialist Party want an alliance with them? It's pure opportunism. The SP has form for ditching its principles to pal around with demagogues if it thinks a political profit can be turned, as per the Tommy Sheridan saga. Simply put, Galloway still has a real depth of support among British Muslims for his - admittedly principled - defence of their community and his consistent stand against the war in Iraq, Libya, and the ongoing occupation of Palestine. The Batley and Spen by-election was a rude reminder to an arrogant Labour machine that these voters won't automatically tick their box. Because of this standing, the SP has designated Galloway a significant personality with clout whose endorsement might see a few deposits saved, and a trickle of recruits come their way, if they can ride on his coattails in future election contests. In other words, the SP is doing what it once took great delight in criticising the SWP for doing when they formed Respect in alliance with Galloway in 2004. It's not principled, it won't get the SP anywhere, and if anything they're cosying up to the most frightful horrors nominally on the left is guaranteed their eternal new workers' party project won't come to fruition. At least not by their efforts, anyway.

Monday 23 May 2022

Cultivating a Crisis of Legitimacy

Here's a photo of Boris Johnson at the leaving party of Lee Cain, the former Downing Street head spinner, in November 2020. It took place when parties with people from outside of your household was banned. This shindig was also scrutinised by the Metropolitan Police for possible breaches of the rules and they issued several fixed penalty notices for some Number 10 staffers present. Who happened to escape the fine? The Prime Minister.

When the heat was really on Johnson back in January, he called in the Met so his egregious wrongdoing could, for a couple of months, be hidden behind the veil of "we can't comment while there's an ongoing police investigation." It was a high risk strategy, because everyone could read the reports in the papers and knew Johnson had very obviously trashed the regulations he expected the rest of us to live by. Getting a fine would, conventional wisdom suggested, force him to step down in disgrace. The months went by and when the notice was finally issued, Johnson muttered a non-apology in the Commons and that was the end of it. No resignation was forthcoming because there was no to force the resignation. Rebellion-minded Tory MPs had had their chance and they blew it in January. Another opportunity was passed up by the rapidly diminishing chancellor in April.

What Johnson did was play for time. His cunning calculated that the longer PartyGate could be dragged out, the more it would become background noise. Meanwhile the Tories would show how serious they were by concentrating on Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine and (allegedly) tackling the rising cost of living. The fact he denied there were parties in Downing Street when he actually attended them wouldn't register up against the really weighty issues of the day and on he would carry. And so on PartyGate has rumbled on without causing Johnson too much bother since. Indeed, he and his new, apparently "tighter" Downing Street coterie would have anticipated the publication of his party snaps, And it doesn't change a thing. When he gets asked about this at Prime Minister's Questions, when some hapless minister is selected to do the rounds of breakfast television, the line will be that an apology has already been issued and the police were satisfied all the other gatherings were within the rules. If asked about the discrepancy between junior staff forced to cough up and Johnson getting away with a single fine, this will get batted away as a "matter for them". And lastly the old line about getting on with the priorities of the British people is about to get its umpteenth airing.

The danger, however, hasn't entirely passed for Johnson. The different political circumstances in Scotland means the Tory leader there gets to say out loud what a layer of Tory MPs are thinking. And so Douglas Ross has ostentatiously condemned the images. But he's not about to put his no confidence letter back into the 1922 Committee, and neither are they. Nor is there going to be a stalking horse leadership challenge: William Hague scrapped them in 1998 in case Michael Portillo re-entered parliament and came gunning for his post. It's to Johnson's preternatural luck that the danger he's in is tempered by the constitutional cowardice of his MPs. With no obvious alternative waiting in the wings, it's also a case of them sticking with the devil they know.

But there are other dangers too, dangers older, wiser Tories used to be alert to. Liberal democracy in this country acts as a political outlet, a means of peacefully channelling the interests (and frustrations) of the classes and strata of British society. Its legitimacy is imperilled if the system isn't seen to be working. After the Brexit referendum, the polarisation of politics reversed, to some extent, the idea the political parties were all the same. Before then low turn out and low interest was the norm. With Johnson's appalling behaviour, the lack of accountability and absence of contrition is less a moment of despondency and more a politicisation event, particularly among those who lost people and were prevented from seeing them by Covid restrictions. For many of these it won't be that they hold Johnson and his party in contempt, but the danger is it spreads to all forms of constitutional politics with who-knows-what consequences. Even worse for official society, because Johnson dragged the Met into the fray as his police shield of convenience, their failure to issue more fines despite photographic evidence of his rule-breaking sees the legitimacy of the force decline further. Not among those they police on the streets of London whose opinions don't count, but those middle class and some upper echelons of the establishment the Met does need to have onside.

Before this, the Tories were already in a bad way, but Johnson's lies and antics these past months threaten to spread discontent with the Conservative Party to the institutions of the state itself. If that doesn't give more intelligent Tories pause for reflection and cause for action, nothing will.

Image Credit

Sunday 22 May 2022

Flogging the Hobby Horses

The Tory press have imbibed the results of the Australian election and it's sitting heavy in their stomachs. In the land down under, where Labor glows and Liberals chunder, observant Tories can hear the thunder ... of political pain ahead. Looking at the coverage following the Coalition's surprise heavy defeat, the headlines are all about how the Liberals are "in turmoil" and were in disarray even before polls opened. Adding to the pain, Scott Morrison's heir apparent, the (former) Treasurer Josh Frydenberg was among the Liberal cull. The leadership is now very likely to fall to right wing Defence Secretary Peter Dutton.

Drawing its conclusions from these shores, the Sunday Telegraph editorial frets that a similar reckoning is due. It notes how the Australian versions of the blue and red walls crumbled as a progressive coalition smashed the Liberals in their heartland seats. The Telegraph implies environmentalism and the cost of living crisis did for Morrison's crew, but happily the advice the paper proffers is similar to those hoping Dutton's going to save the liberals: double down on the conservatism. It argues Boris Johnson is busily alienating the coalition of voters that put them into power. This is worth quoting at length:
The Tories have made a stab at challenging the woke advance in the culture wars, but why are our institutions still dominated by the Left? Why is the civil service seeking to erase women? They have failed to deregulate the economy after Brexit, are doing too little to tackle crime, have nothing to say about market-led economic growth and have yet to do anything meaningful to raise post-Covid standards in education. What seem to officials like bright ideas – actually foolish and outdated – are leapt on without philosophical foundation or consideration of the consequences, economic or political. There is a sensible way to address climate change through technology, but instead people are told they must fly less or Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are imposed in suburbs. The cost of government failure is passed on to the voters, and done so with an air of Puritan smugness.
Taking in the round recent Tory vandalism, like privatising Channel Four, the disgraceful Rwandan transportation scheme, taking the butcher's knife to the civil service, and today's floater: banning strike action by transport and teaching unions, you'd have thought the Telegraph would be satisfied. The Tories themselves, which have undoubtedly focus grouped their rancid offerings, think this would go down well with their base - both old and new. But as argued here to the point of writing a bloody book about it, the Tories have misrecognised the reasons why enough voters made the switch in 2019. Just because Brexit as an idea is riddled with reactionary touch points and authoritarianism, it didn't mean everyone who voted for it was. But, as poll after poll shows, the primary reason Johnson peeled away hundreds of thousands of Labour voters in 2019 is because of his pledge to honour their referendum vote. This, however, was coded as a culture war issue in the Tory imaginary, and so the assumption is more war on woke stuff will keep these new supporters onside. The Telegraph thinks nothing less than a full on purge of anyone with a left or liberal opinion from state institutions will shore up those creaking red and blue walls.

What the Tories have forgot is you can't eat anti-woke polemic. Thatcher won enough popular consent for her programme brcause the deal was sweetened with right to buy, cheap mortgages and credit, tax cuts, and share issues from privatising the utilities. Even during the Coalition years, the Tories seasoned their battery of attacks with the pension triple lock and more tax cuts. What are Johnson's Tories offering apart from a feeble council tax rebate, a compulsory loan, and a smack in the mouth? The result of this strategy is becoming painfully clear. They might be looking okayish in the polls, but then again the Coalition beat Labor in popular vote terms. No, what this month's local elections demonstrated was how the Tory vote retreated in the areas won in 2019, and their brutal evisceration in allegedly safe areas at the hands of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. And given turnout was dominated by older people and the retired, the demographics the Tories do disproportionately well in, this is very bad news indeed.

Inevitably, the question is whether the Tories can turn it around. Looking at their present tactics and the advice of its press allies, Johnson has decided cobbling back together the coalition that won it for him last time might do the trick, while hoping this would be enough without having to win over new voters. It's possible on an outside chance, but the likelihood diminishes the more the Tories indulge their hobby horses and the less time they spend on addressing the catastrophic cost of living crisis. The worse is gets, the more shrill and desperate Tory rhetoric will become.

Saturday 21 May 2022

Four Points on the Australian Election

If you want to glimpse the future of British politics, there's a school of Westminster thought that says we needn't look across the Atlantic. It's Down Under that's our portent of things to come. And looking at the results so far from the federal election, it's difficult not to read British politics, particularly what's happening in England, into the outcome. One cannot avoid how strikingly similar the position takings and the dynamics involved are to what's going on here. This in mins, here are four quick points.

1. The Coalition doubled down on everything that won them office in 2019. There were the lies about their opponents, the pretence that Labor presented an existential threat to Australia (backed, as here, by the Murdoch press), and they put Scott Morrison at the front of the campaign. Thinking he was an asset, after three years of ducking responsibility over increasingly fierce (and frequent) bush fires, absent on climate change, and blundering over Covid vaccines, it was a gamble almost guaranteed to fail. What the Coalition campaign did was emphasise his "strong and stable" qualities thanks to tough lines taken on Ukraine and China. But in the end, for all the pundit talk about his right wing hold on the working class (where have we heard that before?), inactivity on inflation and indifference to the main issues facing Australians helped show him the door.

2. With no programme apart from keeping things as they are and staying in office, the Coalition and their press helpers were enthusiastic wagers of the war on woke. Fooled by foolish commentators and pollsters that they triumphed three years ago because working class Australians recoiled from the social liberalism of Labor and progressive politics generally, the right kept banging the drum with anti-China dog-whistling, with all the racist impacts this has on Chinese Australians, and anti-Green polemic. This was too much for enough Coalition voters in their wealthy seats and, like Tory remainers and constitutionalists here, their votes went elsewhere. Labor enjoyed direct transfers, as did the Greens, but significantly so did the so-called Teal movement - a loose alliance of independents grouped around a desire to take climate change seriously and to clean up politics. They targeted safe Liberal constituencies and were able to pull off several stunning victories.

3. Labor had concluded that its previous manifesto was too expansive and promised too much, which Morrison and the press relentlessly attacked while promising little but "competence" and tax cuts. In contrast the right stood on a minimalist platform that echoed the Tories in 2015, and which they then repeated in 2019. Labor Prime Minister-in-waiting Anthony Albanese ran a tight political ship this time. The four key pledges the party emphasised were making it easier to see a doctor, investing in local jobs, making child care cheaper, and reshoring manufacturing. Throughout Albanese stressed the cost of living crisis, springing a 5.1% increase in the minimum wage midway through the campaign. There was very little here the right could scaremonger about, and because they had no answer to falling living standards Labor's hand was strengthened by its temperate economism. It was enough to take at least nine seats directly from the Liberals, including formerly safe divisions like Tangney, Robertson, and Pearce.

4. Not everything went Labor's way. With some counting still to go, it trails the Coalition in popular vote terms and the Teals and Greens took away a seat apiece, just denying Albanese his majority. That Labor didn't go hard on environmental concerns undoubtedly cost it support, and its general tepid position-taking versus Morrison's scapegoating and woke-baiting did not help either. In other words, left wing and socially liberal-minded voters had somewhere else to go. And they did. Not enough to imperil a famous victory over the right, but one that stymies Labor's room for manoeuvre. Perhaps there's a lesson here.

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Thursday 19 May 2022

Let Them Eat Longer Working Hours

Before news broke about the arrest of a Conservative MP for rape, the party was having a bad week. An outcry over their civil service cuts, on the hook over Northern Ireland failings and former Gloria De Piero office manager turned Tory MP Lee Anderson arguing that the lack of cooking skills is responsible for Britain's growing food bank problem. Into this very Tory mess we find Home Office minister Rachel Maclean stirring the pot further, suggesting people can protect themselves by "taking on more hours or moving to a better paid job." Even worse, this was for the "long-term" and not about addressing the difficulties many millions face now.

But it's a common refrain. We heard it a lot during the Coalition years. When I used to write complaints against social security cuts, the "advice" back from Iain Duncan Smith would always say that constituents should simply "get more hours". Remarks reminiscent of Norman Tebbit's famous anecdote about his dad getting on his bike and looking for work - as opposed to rioting. It speaks to an entirely voluntarist mind set, as if people who don't have enough hours to get by on endure their situation out of choice. All one needs to do is ask the boss for more work and hey presto, enough money to live on without bothering the DWP and "the taxpayer".

Why is this a repeat offender in Tory discourse? Is it a symptom of the Tories being "out of touch", which is a favourite if ineffectual barb of the Labour front bench? Or just plain callousness and cruelty? Indeed, why do these same refrains turn up time and again, repeating decade after decade? To answer the question is to think about the Tories in context. In Capital, Marx treated capitalists as the personifications of capital. I.e. as vehicles of an exploitative social relationship. They were agents of a process they set in train and, as owners of capital, its beneficiaries. Marx was uninterested in capitalists as individuals and resisted viewing their behaviours through the prism of morality. What mattered were the compulsive character of the relations of production they engendered. Hence cruelty, patricianism, penny-pinching, tyranny, the character traits we typically associate with the ideal typical Victorian capitalist is rooted in these self-same relations. They crystallise the behaviours imposed on the capitalist by the competitive necessities of accumulation.

What has this got to do with the Tories? Extrapolating outwards, for Marx and Engels the state was the committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. That is, because individual capitals were responsible for managing the class relations peculiar to their enterprise (whatever that might be), but did so in the context of competition with other capitals doing the same thing, the management of the relations of production by capital-in-general is uneven, messy, chaotic and leaves gaping holes for resistance and counter powers to build. Or it would, if it was not for the state. The state is the institutional condensation of the relations of production, the chief defender of the wage relation and guarantor of the pre-eminence of capital. It is both an instrument of the bourgeoisie as a class, and a site of political struggle. The expansion of the post-war state, for example, typifies this dual character - the growing dependence of the state on immaterial labour was due to having to employ masses of workers to attend to the reproduction of the social by rounding off the hard edged consequences capital imposes on it (unemployment, underemployment, poverty, ill-health, racialised and sexist divisions of labour. etc.) and the expectations of strong labour movements around health services, public services, the institutionalisation of the labour interest, and so on. Unsurprisingly, the extent to which a state cleaves to the labour interest testifies to the strength of the contending classes.

Because the state is an arena of class struggle, parties eventually cohere around the collective movements and constituencies of interests the relations of production give birth to. For example, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the first modern political parties in this country were the Conservatives and the Liberals. Their core social base was the same - capital (albeit, loosely, different fractions of capital) and the political divisions between the two were, crudely, about how best to manage the class relations of their system. The 19th century was when the labour movement formed and its history could be roughly sequenced as machine breaking and protest movements, the development of trade unions and the cooperative movement, and then working class parties - culminating in the Labour Party (and to a much lesser extent, the Communist Party). As a proletarian party, its habits of mind were formed in the attritional battles and small-scale victories of everyday trade unionism, and it articulated the historical but pragmatic aspirations of the class organisations that comprised it. Labour's programme was always a compromise between different strata of proletarians, of salary and wage earners, but one in which the relatively privileged predominated. And, interestingly, from the beginning Labour attracted some fractions of capital, particularly those who spotted and developed a commercial interest in its growing the economic power. Despite the hysterics of some, when Labour has held office it always proved as reliable as the Conservatives and Liberals in managing the relations of production - it worked hard to manage the aspirations of the labour movement within the terms of address afforded by the system, to the point of demobilising and dispersing its own base. And in exchange there was the building of public services, state ownership, and the institutionalisation of organised labour into a haphazard tripartite system - before it was undone in the Thatcher years.

The compromises Labour makes, which are often unnecessary and overly craven, are to be expected. The party exemplifies the tension within the state as overseer of the relations of production and a site of struggle itself, and this manifests itself in the character traits and politics of the adherents the party attracts - often helping explain the contradictory politics often encountered in one person. The Tories are somewhat removed from this. They are not encumbered by a base at cross purposes to the state-as-manager. Altogether, as the one remaining major party of capital its tensions are altogether simpler. Look at recent factional groupings, the Northern Research Group presses for more money for northern constituencies, the Covid recovery group were worried it might give people political ideas, and the One Nation group just want everyone to pull together and for the party to stay united. Hence the personalities that rise to the top of the Tory tree are more likely to reflect capital's traits in a "purer" fashion. Johnson's well known indolence, recklessness, and disinterest in work exemplifies the "laziness" of capital tied up in property. I.e. Capital converted into property only has to sit there to appreciate, which is guaranteed for as long as housing demand outstrips supply and land ownership is concentrated into vanishingly few hands. The Tories who delight in cruelty, like Therese Coffey and her scheme to pile more cruelty onto social security recipients, resembles capitals whose model is about squeezing and intensively exploiting their workforce as much as they can. The arrogance of Tories, like Lee Anderson, who lectures the poor on their competencies reflects the superiority that comes with control over the production process. And bringing us back to the excuse for this excursus, for our Rachel Macleans their pig ignorance of and indifference to the realities of the hoi polloi is what you'd expect from a profoundly instrumentalising process that treats employees as inputs instead of the complex human beings they are.

In other words, the fact the Tories of the 2020s are just like the Tories of the 1990s isn't a quirk of fate or coincidence, it's because they are the flotsam and jetsam of the social flow sloshing through bourgeois politics. The faces change but the personalities do not thanks to the Tories being the pre-eminent party of the state, the state being a crucial nexus in the relations of production, and the fact these relations are an exploitative zero-sum game. For all the dynamism and uncertainty capitalism generates, the line between capital and the character traits of those who espouse its politics is remarkably stable.