Thursday 30 June 2022

What I've Been Reading Recently

I've actually read enough these last three months to justify this periodic bout of book narcissism. Here's the last one. And here's the new one:

Women and Work by Susan Ferguson
Labour's Lost Soul? by Eric Shaw
Historical Materialism Vols 6 to 11:2
The Lubetkin Legacy by Maria Lewycka
Red Moon by Kim Stanley Robinson
Galaxias by Stephen Baxter
Ten Years of New Labour by Matt Beech and Simon Lees (eds)
Horus Rising by Dan Abnett
The Starmer Project by Oliver Eagleton
Kallocain by Karin Boye
Legacies of Betrayal by Chris Wraight et al

Any comments? Sure. First is the peculiar inclusion of Historical Materialism, which back in the early days of the journal were quite often breeze block thick bois of critical Marxist goodness. The period covered here is, if memory serves, from Summer 2000 to Summer 2003. Why? Well, why not? Is there a better way of getting a grasp on key innovations in Marxism over the last 20 years than reading back issues of a journal dedicated to innovating and developing Marxist thought? These sit awkwardly on last quarter's reading with a couple of Warhammer 40,000 novels - the Abnett and the Wraight for the uncogniscent. We've talked about the grim dark future of the 41st Millennium before, and this couple of books - one a novel, the other a loose anthology - were diverting tales of over the top superhuman soldiers, xenophobia, agents of chaos, all from a gratuitously ludicrous but pleasingly consistent and tightly plotted setting.

On more serious matters, Oliver Eagleton's well-received book is definitely worth a read. The discussion of how the remain campaign got its hooks in the Labour Party, was used by Keir Starmer to enhance his profile and leadership chances, and the role certain leftwingers played, especially John McDonnell, has generated some polite debate and civilised discussion on the left. Leaving that aside, the detail of Starmer's social climbing and mendacity before he entered politics deserves to be widely known and challenged about. On a more upbeat note, I highly recommend Susan Ferguson's Women and Work, which is an excellent primer for Social Reproduction Theory - the contemporary re-emergence of Marxist feminism via engagements with black and intersectional feminism, queer and trans liberation, and contemporary configurations of class. And also Karin Boye's Kallocain, a Swedish dystopian novel that did Nineteen Eighty-Four eight years before Orwell published his most famous work. Last of all, a quick moan about the Baxter work. As a writer of hard sci-fi, Baxter is an engine of scientifically informed imagination - and Galaxias, a novel of first contact, is no different. But where he consistently falls down is on the sociological side of things. No matter where or when his works take us, his social landscapes are either capitalist or some derivative of feudalism. He can conceive alien worlds and alien species, but not alternatives to present and past ways of doing things. Interesting.

What have you been reading recently?

Wednesday 29 June 2022

Lamentable Labourism

During his interview with Sophie Raworth on Sunday morning, Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy attacked industrial action due by British Airways workers. With all the arrogance of an ignoramus, he declared that serious parties of government do not send its leading figures to picket lines. This after Keir Starmer issued his widely ignored instruction banning shadcab members from showing solidarity with striking workers. Today, he was forced to eat humble pie. Replying to a letter from a constituent, Lammy admitted his error, saying he did not realise BA workers had temporarily given up 10% of their pay to keep the company afloat and were taking action to have it restored. Even then Lammy couldn't say he was backing the workers, but his apology restores him to the studied silence he usually observes when it comes to industrial disputes.

As we've discussed recently, despite Labour being set up by the trade unions who provided the resources, the heft, and the organisational experience from the beginning the party has always had a less-than-straightforward approach to industrial relations. Leading figures from the party, even those who came from the labour movement, have had attitudes ranging from enthusiastic embrace to pragmatic support to outright hostility. None of this began with Tony Blair and New Labour. It was Alan Johnson of all people, on a Question Time many years ago in response to a leftwinger in the audience, who summed it up best. He said Labour was set up by the trade union movement as a national party. This was certainly true of the first Labour Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald and first Labour chancellor, Philip Snowden, but what does this even mean? It suggests Labourism harbours a fundamental political weakness.

What Johnson said out loud was an implication that Marxists have always known, that there is a fundamental antagonism between the interests of the workers and the national interest. I.e. the collective interests of the ruling class, the state, and their system. Except in the Labourist imaginary the worker interest it's supposed to articulate and prosecute is sectional, special, and particular. It concedes that it's separate from the nation and is illegitimate compared to the universal interest the nation supposedly represents. In one way, the roots of this lie in the strict separation of economics and politics the labour movement organises around. The unions have the job of organising the workers, defending terms, conditions, wages, etc, and are accustomed to incremental change via negotiations and industrial skirmish. As fundamentally pragmatic organisations of workers who deal with the situation in the workplace as they find it, accepting this as the terrain of struggle is the immediate, and therefore sole purview. Labourism as a politics represents the moment when the labour movement realised its interests could only be furthered by combining their efforts in a political party, and therefore was a crucial advance in that sense - hence why Marx and Engels were keen for the British working class to form their own party and break with the Liberals. Labourism was the moment workers saw past the coal face and fixed their eyes on the horizon.

But you could also say Labourism recoiled from what it glimpsed there. Economic struggle, as per Lenin's critique of economism, was fixated on how much the wage should be, not its abolition. Conditions and working hours were about "fairness", not contesting the employer's right to run matters as they see fit. This "common sense" approach to class relations at the point of production carried through to politics. Parliament, royalty, the constitution, these were rules of the game to be accepted in exactly the same way as the reality of the workplace. Labourism in politics replicated the subordination of Labourism at work, and therefore it meant taking the bourgeois definition of permissible politics and what constituted the nation as read. Hence the craven conservatism, the social climbing, the presentation of respectability, the support for empire were features of Labourist political strategies and habits of trends within the party. All too often in the party's history, these were not means to an end but ends in themselves. Opposition to industrial struggle from this quarter is the self-loathing inherent to Labourism, of it being a distraction from the proper vote-winning business of the party, or a fear its electoral chances will be tainted by the crudities of chanting pickets and burning oil drums.

Lammy, despite his working class background, entered parliament after a brief legal career. There was no trade unionist record or familiarity with the labour movement as per so many of the intake during the Tony Blair years. And, in his damning Raworth interview this was shown up when he observed that "We're called Labour because we want to associate ourselves with working people", as if the name was a bit of marketing that had no more a relationship to the party than a disco has to a brand of crisps. And nor should we be surprised. As a careerist who puts an equals sign between the parties to an industrial dispute, or is only interested in workers' interests when they're nullified by a consumerists framing and inconvenienced by grounded flights, this very middle class, liberal stance on stoppages fits seamlessly into a tradition historically proven to be scared of its own shadow.

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Monday 27 June 2022

Capitalising on Roe Vs Wade

Since Roe Vs Wade became a constitutional right via the Supreme Court in 1973, four men have held the White House for the Democrats. Between 1977 and 1981, 1993-95, 2009-11, and presently they have also held the Senate and the House of Representatives. Some of the years overlap with holding the presidency too. Yet, despite ample opportunity, the party has failed to legislate for and codify the right to an abortion. Indeed, sainted Barack Obama promised that signing it into law would be his first act as president. Needless to say, it wasn't an act at any time during his presidency. Whether it was complacency, not wanting to give the right something to mobilise around, or whether Obama simply didn't care enough, an opportunity was passed up to shield women from judicial attacks by the fundamentalist right.

When news leaked about the Supreme Court's plans to reverse the judgement, Democrat Senators mobilised to put abortion on the federal statue books. Unfortunately, their liberal heroics last month fell 49-51. A case of ah well nevertheless? No. With inflation creeping upwards and eating into the modest wage growth American enjoyed over the course 2021, Biden's achievements such as the trillion dollar infrastructure plan and the even larger Covid relief package are likely to become distant memories. Mobilising for the mid-terms, which were widely forecast to swing back toward the GOP as per the see-saw of US politics, was going to be a problem for the Democrats. With no answers to the current economic problems, they needed something that could turn out the vote and save their bacon.

Step forward Senate Majority leader Charles Schumer. He tabled the the Roe Vs Wade codification bill, but purposely designed it to lose. Knowing moderate Republicans would have a hard time supporting legislation allowing for abortion without term limits, it appears this "misfire" was quite deliberate. Democrats now have something to sell - a wedge issue which around 60% of Americans support. Billing themselves as democratic crusaders against the judicial activism of unelected, Trumpist fanatics is just the ticket. Yes, you read this correctly. Women's constitutional rights play second fiddle to the duplicity of House Democrats.

This will probably work. It won't be for the first time that a summer of mass activism is later channelled into the constitutional safety valve of Democrat election campaigns. But if the Democrats do retain their Senate majority, as past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour, are they really going to properly legislate for abortion? Are they going to codify LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage while they can, or let the Supreme Court strike these down too in time for the next round of elections? Cynical politics is often mistaken for smart politics. The problem is, after a while, people can see through these tricks. The erosion of liberal democracies in recent years is partly thanks to this sort of behaviour. It depresses participation with the consequence of letting the likes of Donald Trump through. With a comeback for the perma tanned Antichrist on the cards, do the Democrats really want to be playing these games?

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Sunday 26 June 2022

Keir Starmer's Centre Ground

How to celebrate an essential by-election victory? If you're Keir Starmer, you take to the pages of The Observer and claim it as a victory for the centre ground. Was it? On Thursday, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were the beneficiaries of an anti-Tory protest vote rather than a positive identification with either party. Don't take my predictably left wing take on Labour's performance for it, John Curtice agrees as well. But there is a point Starmer makes about "detoxifying" Labour and the role it played. He writes,
... we have rolled up our sleeves and focused on listening to the public and changing our party. We’ve rooted out the poison of antisemitism, shown unshakeable support for Nato, forged a new relationship with business, shed unworkable or unaffordable policies and created an election machine capable of taking on the Conservatives.
Let's retranslate this self-serving waffle. Under Starmer Labour has restated its commitment to the US-led alliance and the national security state, and made great public display out of its acceptance of the rules of the political game. Labour's noted silence on policy, apart from when a proposal swims with the public mood, has (mostly) bought off press hostility. There's no running commentary on anti-black and anti-Muslim racism in the party, no outcry over appalling cases of misogyny, and gone are stories about sending homeowners to the gulag and other red-baiting nonsense. Starmer has done his level best to assure the establishment that he poses no threat to their interests, which is just about the only sincere aspect of his politics, and they have reciprocated with neutral-to-warm coverage. Apart from the hardcore Tory outlets, but even here the anti-Starmer stories are more tepid and less frequent than that endured by his predecessor.

The result? A more benign political environment for Labour, and more voters prepared to give the party a punt. But does this mean a victory for the much-vaunted and forever vague centre ground, as Starmer claims? He writes "That’s not a place of mushy compromise or a halfway house between unpalatable extremes, but a centre ground driven by ethical purpose ... a place that is dedicated to answering the clarion call ... of all those demanding real change." He goes on to say it's the place from which Labour will become a restless, reforming government. It would tackle the "stagnant economy" and the chief reason why it's in the doldrums: "a failure to make the most of the enormous talents and resources that we have here in Britain." Superficial piffle that, in less colourful terms, resembles Boris Johnson's levelling up wheeze. He's good at talking about a modernisation project but is stubbornly and structurally incapable of delivery.

Of Starmer's radical centre, all we've really seen of substance so far is the aforementioned windfall tax and the bastardisation of Rebecca Long-Bailey's Green New Deal, repurposed as a renewable energy PFI by Rachel Reeves designed to lock 'green' capital into Labour's political fortunes. But because most people don't pay much attention to politics, but are nevertheless more likely to locate themselves in the centre than being at any of the "extremes" (regardless of the content of their political views), he's hoping that an explicitly centrist pitch will help along the vibing strategy.

Can this be enough? I doubt it. Regardless of who leads the Tories at the next general election, the only political strategy available to them is to put back together the 2017 and 2019 voter coalitions. In the absence of Brexit and anti-Corbyn fearmongering, this is exactly what their deliberate stoking of wedge issues is all about. This runs the risk of firming up the anti-Tory vote too, which contributed to Labour's better-than-expected result five years ago. But by the same token, if Starmer doesn't offer anything to leftist and progressive voters it's not just the supermajorities in the big cities that will reduce, but also Labour's chances in the marginals. Anti-Toryim can carry Labour in a by-election, but not when power is at stake.

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Saturday 25 June 2022

Staring into the Abyss

The Conservative Party was braced for a loss in Wakefield. There were questions whether the Liberal Democrats could pull off a win in Tiverton. But comprehensive defeats in both, followed by the unanticipated resignation of Tory chair Oliver Dowden was the icing on the cake. If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you. And that sets the tone for a weekend of panic, recrimination, and despair among Conservative ranks. If the Wakefield swing was repeated on a national scale, the party would be reduced to 230-odd MPs and be out. If Tiverton is the strength of anti-Tory feeling at a general election, the welcome doom of the Tories are upon us: they would limp back into the Commons with 26 seats. Michael Howard, now with something of the fright about him, put the blame of the disaster at Boris Johnson's feet. Others prefer to cry foul, such as Attorney General Suella Braverman who wailed about a Lab/Lib pact that laid the Tories low. Forgetting how, in the last five years, the Tories have been in de facto coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party and their below stairs agreement with the Brexit Party in 2019 netted them an extra 20 seats.

Howard is right that the Johnson effect is proving a drag on the Tories. How PartyGate has played out and his shameless avoidance of accountability can only but damage the party further each day he spends in office. But the refusal to be seen to be doing anything about the cost of living crisis, of talking about plans and strategies to deliver on the priorities of the British people but then not delivering is getting noted all over the place. Everyone apart from the wealthy are taking hits to incomes thanks to price rises, and even the Tory base have to wait until next April before they can bank their above-inflation increase to pensions. There might be some truth that Tory voters abstained - by-elections always report lower turnouts than general elections, after all. But the problem Johnson has got, just as we saw in the local election results, is older people - among whom the Tories enjoy a peerless advantage - are more likely to turnout for second order elections (i.e. contests that aren't general elections), and so significant shifts among in these elections suggest the actual picture is grimmer when you take into account the fact Tory support tends to be lower among working age people.

Can things get worse for the Tories? Of course. The low key electoral pact between Labour and the LibDems should get the Tories fretting and sweating. Since last June's Chesham and Amersham result, vote switching on the part of anti-Tory voters has not only been crucial for LibDem by-election victories, they have taken on a sharper (some might say more ruthless) character. His esteemed holiness John Curtice is right to say in Wakefield and Tiverton, voters were less motivated by a positive case for Labour or the LibDems and were looking for who was best placed to give the Conservatives a kicking. The question is whether it can remain as potent in a general election. Past tactical voting campaigns are a mixed bag. If you listen to the Labour right, this was the sole reason for the party's unexpected success in 2017. In 2019, the plethora of remain-supporting tactical voting websites - often dispensing (purposely) duff advice - only helped consolidate the splits among the opposition parties - while, as we saw, the Tories benefited from its settlement with Nigel Farage. On the last outing, it's arguable tactical voting efforts on both sides weren't decisive as regards the result, but helped ensure Johnson did better than might otherwise have been the case.

There are three reasons why the Tories should be worried now. The first is a significant slice of the electorate have come to the conclusion about who best to vote for when it comes to seeing off Tory campaigns. Again, bear in mind there has been no media coming from Labour or the LibDems about who to vote for. Indeed, both maintain the fiction that the best way of beating Johnson is by voting for them. In other words, voters are acting independently of party direction. And they are doing so because of the second reason: the actions of the Tories themselves. Johnson stands exposed as a Prime Minister solely interested in the trappings of office. His programme, such as it is, is entirely negative. When it's not trying to gut the state's capacity to do things and therefore redraw permissible politics with a narrow horizon, the Tories are solely concerned with picking fights they think they can reap political profits from. Taken in conjunction with Tory failures and PartyGate they're helping solidify a tactically savvy, anti-Tory vote. Third, even if Johnson's services are dispensed of how likely will the current policy train switch tracks? Jeremy Hunt has said he'd do exactly the same as Johnson on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Penny Mordaunt or Liz Truss aren't going to abandon wedge politics. And even in the unlikely event of a soft makeover, people have memories.

None of this is pre-ordained, of course. But it is likely. And the Tory task becomes even hard if Labour breaks the habit of the last two years and hits upon attacks lines and a positive programme that resonates. Its role, as well as the LibDems, is to lean into this anti-Toryism and encourage it. The prize isn't just office, but a blow from which the Tory party may never recover.

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Thursday 23 June 2022

Mick Lynch Vs the Media

No brain space to write anything for the third night running (sorry!). Instead, enjoy this piece from Novara on Mick Lynch and his filleting of the UK media.

Monday 20 June 2022

Banning Solidarity

How is not turning up on rail workers' picket lines "showing leadership"? I ask, because this is the argument Keir Starmer used in a memo circulated to shadow cabinet members banning them from public displays of solidarity with strikers. It goes on to instruct them to "speak to members of your team to remind them of this and confirm with me that you have done so", having said the party already has established "robust lines". Because decrying strikes while half-heartedly criticising the Tories for provoking the dispute is what firmness looks like.

Labour Party politics come in two kinds. It either leads public opinion, which is always heavily manipulated, or tails it. Considering the right wing press have fallen behind the Tory line and their coverage is repackaged and spun by the BBC as faux "real concerns" about kids doing their exams and patients travelling to hospital appointments, as with so many other issues Starmer's "leadership" is a capitulation to pro-Tory framing. While this might be thought in terms of grubbing extra votes from imagined Sun readers who dwell exclusively in Leader's Office heads, distancing is him telling Briton's bosses that when push comes to shove, no government of his will back groups of workers against employers. Yes, he's promised some enhanced trade union rights but the responsible thing is for industrial disputes to sort themselves out, with the state - his administration - aloof from the fray. They have nothing to fear from Labour.

Let there be no doubt. "Showing leadership" in this situation is standing up against the government, rebutting Tory lies that fixate on drivers' wages - even though they're not striking, demanding to know where the Covid subsidy that kept rail afloat during the most acute phase of the pandemic went, and associating Labour with organised labour taking action to defend their livelihoods - and the network itself.

But Starmer's cowardice has a lineage that long pre-dates him. Remember, it only became standard to expect senior Labour politicians on picket lines during the Corbyn interlude. Before then, overt support from Labour MPs outside of the left were few and far between. During the Blair years, ministers almost relished industrial disputes as a means of showing how tough they were. In its actions and rhetoric during the firefighters' dispute of 2002-3 for instance, there was little to nothing separating New Labour from their Tory forebears. And throughout the long years of Conservative rule, disavowal and distancing from strike action was the norm, not the exception.

The inglorious tradition stretches back further still, and recalls the contradictions of Labourism. Once the party broke into the mainstream and sent parliamentarians to the big house, from the get go there was always a fraction not just temperamentally suited to the constitutionalism of procedure, but much preferred it to the messy business of winning advances on the industrial front. They wre a cut above, looked down on the people who put them there, and believed themselves superior to them. From their exalted positions they could see the way forward and they knew best, not those whose horizons ended at the factory gate and were mired in sectionalism and getting a few bob on the wage. They started seeing themselves as statesman, and their proper constituency was the national community, not a section of it.

These ideas are embedded in Labourism and persist not just because politics and economics are kept formally separate in the party/trade union split, but how aspirant politicians, even at the local level, are often cut off from and pay no heed to unions - and this is rewarded by the party. The lily-livered "leadership" of Starmer is reproduced by the conditions so many careerists encounter as they work their way up the greasy pole. Starmerism and its, at best, equivocation over workers in struggle is not new. It's an unwelcome throwback to the past.

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Sunday 19 June 2022

Boris Johnson's "Luck"

Luck is not handed down by the fates. It's something you make. Consider Boris Johnson, the politician who has had more scrapes than any other significant Westminster figure this century. His survival after multiple scandals aren't quirks of fate, but the result of careful calculation. Going back to 2019, his taking over after Theresa May was pretty much a foregone conclusion. And then observing the opposition he faced across the Commons, he understood the only route to winning a majority was uniting the bulk of the 2016 Leave vote behind him. Facing down remainers in the parliamentary Tory party, he was able to convince most MPs of the electoral viability of his approach while rudely thrusting internal obstacles aside and making sure he played to backbench prejudices. This was not luck, this was cunning. It was political judgement.

Once the majority was won, over the last couple of years Johnson has expanded the payroll in parliament, giving him a large cadre of MPs who owe their extra bits of income to his largesse. Again, he didn't win the no confidence vote because fortune smiled on him. It was self-preservation before the fact. The discontented, as we know, were handily outnumbered by true believers and those whose voted follow their wallets.

And Johnson has mostly enjoyed the protection and patronage of the right wing press. They occasionally publish critical stories because even here, they're not monoliths. The papers have their pro- and anti-Johnson hacks, editors, and opinion writers, and sometimes a scandal is too big to ignore on pain of losing readers and market share. But when it comes down to it they will always plump for the Tories over Labour, unless the latter is congenially right wing enough. If the editors aren't resolute, the owners are and they know their best interests are served by keeping their buffoonish Prime Minister in office. Hence they've proven the keenest to "move on" from PartyGate. Again, not luck. But assiduously cultivated friends in high places.

Take the case of the disappearing news story as a case in point. Early editions of the Sunday Times splashed with news that Johnson had lined up Carrie Symonds, now Johnson, for his chief of staff job at the foreign office back in 2018. Not only would this have netted her a cool £100k non-job, this was while they were in the throes of their affair. Quite literally, according to an unnamed MP who walked in and caught them in flagrante. Another clear breach of the ministerial code then, and one well known in Westminster circles since Lord Ashcroft made it public in his hatchet job on our Covid-defying ABBA party hostess. What's curious is how the story made the Times early print editions, but vanished from later printings. Deepening the plot, a rewrite that appeared on the Mail Online vanished almost as quickly as it was posted.

According to the rumour mill, the order to pull the story came from on high. Which is curious: it was already out there, guaranteed to circulate far and wide on social media. And in the Mail's case, the extract from Ashcroft's book that contains the original allegation is still available on their website. Incredible.

But again, what this episode reminds us is that Boris Johnson isn't lucky. He has some of the most powerful people in the country batting for him. Some might call this luck. Others might call it an entirely corrupt set up.

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Saturday 18 June 2022

A Note on Wedge Week

Floundering governments struggle to get their message across. Especially so when beset by division and the siege mentality has set in. One stratagem to try and bend media coverage in a positive way is to spend a period of time, usually a week, focusing on a policy or family of policies. The week before last, for instance, was "Health Week". Sajid Javid was pictured next to CT scanners, hospital car parks, and took questions on the NHS and how the health service is coping with the Covid-induced backlog (just don't mention that hospital admissions are rising again). This was supposed to showcase how the Tories can be trusted with the holiest of holies, and helping Javid fill up his picture portfolio for when the next leadership contest comes. Unfortunately for the Tories, it was entirely overshadowed by recent events.

Last week was a variation on the theme. If policy won't cut through, why not try dirty tricks? In what Paul Waugh dubbed "Wedge Week", the Tories deliberately stoked up tensions to win support around polarising issues. The disgusting Rwanda transportation plan ticks a couple of Tory boxes, not least the posturing on immigration and asylum this afforded them. The ECHR sequel, which allows for a hard-done-to Britain to face off against a European court recalls Brexit populism. The shameful and reckless antics about the Northern Ireland Protocol isn't entirely a matter of firming up the Tory base, but it can't harm it either. Then there are the railway strikes, which characteristically the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is lying about. And then Priti Patel handed down her decision about Julian Assange, predictably signing an extradition order and consigning him to an uncertain fate in the American penal system. On their own, each of these are outrages. Grouped together, it's evidently a conscious strategy.

An example of the UKIPification of the Tory party? Of presenting oneself the champion of an unsullied, pure people versus an array of corrupt establishments - in Wedge Week's case liberal lawyers, EU and foreign meddlers, union barons, and ne'er-do-well lefties? The Tories under Boris Johnson have knowingly taken on the populist mantle, and with "Get Brexit Done" they pulled off their famous election victory. But on the other hand, there is nothing new about these tactics. "Grown up" Theresa May often railed against those who would thwart Brexit. Before her Dave and Osborne pushed wedge issues around public spending and social security, positioning anyone of working age in receipt of support - including (some might say especially) the disabled - as some sort of aristocracy coining it off the back of everyone else. In the opposition years before Dave, Hague, IDS, and Howard alternated between liberal do-gooders, immigrants, and the European Union as their bete noires. And Thatcher and Major, if anything, had a pantheon of leftist and anti-British devilry - a rogues' gallery they could rely upon to mobilise their electorates.

With no solutions to the economic crisis bearing down on us, and a severe shock to the legitimation of the whole shebang, all the Tories have got in the tank is division and fear. As the favoured party of state in this country and custodian of capitalist relations, that means maintaining the cohesiveness of their side and the disruption and dispersal of the oppositions that come into being. And this isn't unique to the Tories, it's the ABC of right wing politics everywhere. One can choose to ignore it, as Labour are presently doing, and run the risk of getting defeated again, or come up with strategies for dealing with them. Wedge politics of the Tory kind work best when social polarisation underpins political polarisation. That's the situation we're in now, so the best counter is to short circuit them by posing some wedge issues of our own. PartyGate, the cost of living crisis, each are pregnant with opportunities begging to be taken. And yet ...

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Thursday 16 June 2022

Being Boring

I can picture the scene. Keir Starmer gathers his lieutenants together for the weekly meeting. Some call in over Zoom. The session begins with Wes Streeting apologising to the shadow cabinet for offering encouragement to rail workers taking industrial action. We hear anodyne anecdote from the front lines in Wakefield - the scores on the door shows the contact rate is up x per cent and Labour promises have long broken the five figure mark. And then the centrepiece of every meeting: Starmer's summing up and lines for the week ahead. But instead of discussing the cost of living crisis and taking the fight to the Tories, he complains about leaks. "I'm fed up of being described as boring", he whinged. What's "boring", he cried, are leaks undermining Labour's chances of getting back into government. "What’s boring is being in opposition", he added in his Partridgesque tones.

He should feel touchy. The focus groups he sets great store by say the same thing. But does it really matter? Starmer thinks so, with his cringing allusions to the popular culture of yesteryear at Prime Minister's Question. Unfortunately, that makes him look try hard and inauthentic, a tag Labour are keen to shake off. Instead, Starmer should lean into it and embrace the grey. Back in the dim and distant, the party thought about capitalising on Gordon Brown's dour and austere image with a poster campaign that declared "No Flash, Just Gordon". One doesn't have to be a Brown fan to recognise this as a stroke of advertising genius, which is why Labour decided not to run it. It preferred to run posters with Dave posing on a Quattro and have Brown smiling awkwardly on YouTube instead.

Starmer's strength among Labour members who voted for him was an apparent seriousness of purpose. He was the "grown up" who would carry Corbynism to parts of the electorate the sainted Jeremy could not. He was boring and the membership wanted boring. It should be an advantage vis a vis the creature of constitutional havoc that is Boris Johnson. Where the Prime Minister lacks honour Starmer has integrity. Where Johnson says the first thing that comes to mind to get through the day's scrapes, Starmer is diligent and on top of his brief. Where the Tory leader lies Labour's leader will always tell the truth. Veteran watchers of Starmer's leadership know otherwise, but the Forde Report, the stitching up of Jeremy Corbyn, and the leadership pledges lost down the back of the sofa aren't well known. It's just internal Labour froth and noise little different to what the public have grown accustomed to since 2015 - and long tuned out.

Starmer could capitalise on this. After all, when the mud slinging starts and the likes of The Mail and The Express suddenly discover his past misdeeds, it's unlikely to land. Inner party minutiae is even more boring than the protagonist of this post. Looking at the polling comparing him to Johnson, he scores higher than his opponent on nearly every metric. Why is he refusing to turn what some see as a weakness into a strength? Because it means committing to something. Brown had his record and heavy weight reputation to rest on. Clement Attlee was a charisma-free zone, but had ideas. Starmer has neither of these. In politics he was previously Second Referendum man. And in policy, it's a Union Jack branded binder with nothing but blank sheets inside. For boring to work, substance is required. One has to stand for something. Which puts Starmer at a massive disadvantage versus Johnson, who has an inchoate culture war and a tepid modernisation project to lean back on.

Whether it's his judgement or the clueless crew he's surrounded himself with, Starmer is refusing to commit to anything. We've seen it over the Rwanda deportations, the train strikes, free school meals, and Covid mitigations. The Tories stole his one policy and there's little left. It appears Starmer is following the path set by Ed Miliband during his ill-fated tenure: stay silent on big ticket pledges, get the public on side with patriotic vibes, and 18 months to a couple of years out from election day start rolling out the policies. Promising nothing now gives the party a couple of years worth of grace so the Tory press can't turn mild mannered pledges into massive wedge issues. When they do pull these sorts of tricks the carefully cultivated vibes will insulate Starmer and co. from attack. So goes the theory, but in practice we're seeing a word more damaging than boring cropping up in poll findings: weak. By refusing to define yourself politically, the Tories will have a go for you. Predictably, the Captain Hindsight monicker has taken off, something Starmer might have avoided had he challenged the government's Covid strategy at the time instead of going along and uttering process criticisms. His silence on the train strikes won't save him from getting depicted as the RMT's marionette. And on it will go. We can write the headlines now.

In conventional political terms, there's never been a better time to be boring. The chaos and division of the Johnson years have produced a large section of the electorate who want to switch off from the antics and shenanigans, safe in the knowledge there's a competent hand on the tiller and things are improving. As cookie cutter politicians go, this should be Starmer's moment. He was made for it. But thanks to political cowardice and an absence of nous, he's trying his damnedest to pass the opportunity up.

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Wednesday 15 June 2022

Refugees as Political Pawns

Thanks to the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, Tuesday night's scheduled deportation of the first tranche of asylum seekers to Rwanda was thwarted. In response, Priti Patel vowed that Home Office lawyers would immediately start working to make sure the next flight isn't so delayed. Egg on the government's face, then. Or is it? The consensus amongst the professional commentariat and Twitterati is the delay suits Boris Johnson, Patel, and Number 10's little shop of horrors. It gives them another wedge issue where the Tories can portray themselves as the people's voice against an alliance of lefty lawyers and bleeding, liberal hearts. And it resurrects the ghost of Brexit. The ECHR and EU are entirely separate, but for the low information and/or permanently angry sections of Tory and Tory leaning voters, it's still Europe, it's still foreigners overruling the British, so what's the difference?

The Tories have had the ECHR in their sights for some time. In Johnson's and Theresa May's manifestos, there was a commitment to look at human rights and the Human Rights Act. This was reiterated in an interview with the Prime Minister following the flight's cancellation. Dave and Osborne's 2015 manifesto committed them to scrapping the HRA and redefining the UK's relationship with the ECHR. This was a low key pledge in the battery of Tory promises, fronted by the referendum pledge, to win back the UKIP vote. But prior to this senior Tories earned cheap applause from the press for fulminating against human rights - this included May who, in her then capacity as Home Secretary, toyed with leaving the ECHR. The Rwanda plan is the latest moment in an inglorious recent record shared across the Tory party.

Yet, despite the advantage the Tories think being beastly to the wretched of the earth affords them, it's not just about cynical vote chasing and distraction tactics. It goes to the heart of Tory statecraft. As explained here many times, successive governments for 40 years have centralised power and authority in the executive. During its expansion in the post-war period, the state became a constellation of institutions which had relative autonomy from and purviews separate to government. Tory class war on public sector unions and the introduction of market mechanisms as principles of governance theoretically cemented their separation from the centre, but in practice it gave the Cabinet and senior Whitehall officials carte blanche to intervene in them with all the subtleties of a wrecking ball. Jacob Rees-Mogg's policing of civil servants and declared intention to cut 91,000 jobs is typical of the relationship between government and the state's institutions.

This relates to the Tories' purpose, which is to consolidate, maintain, and see off any challenge to capitalist relations of production. They instinctively rail against any formally independent expertise or spaces of autonomy within the state because these offer the potential for initiative and spaces of organisation that run counter to their purposes. The Tories' eternal task, as borne out by 200 years of history, is to make sure labour is subordinate to capital and that nothing should come between them and their raison d'etre. Which is where the hostility to the EU came in. To paraphrase Thatcher, her Tories did not roll back the frontiers of the state in the 1980s only to have them reimposed at European level. She came round to the view that the EU was an impediment and brake on what the party of the British bourgeoisie think is necessary to manage "their" subordinates. Hence the high correlation between professed Thatcherism and Brexit enthusiasm. For them, exiting the EU is the removal of the final fetters on their programme of class rule. All the drek about sovereignty, democracy, and self-determination is about their freedom, their autonomy. The unsightly scrap with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the contrived fight with the EHCR are extensions of the same logic.

This is an ongoing political project, and demands a political response. Unfortunately but predictably, Labour is nowhere to be seen. Having once used a wedge issue to his own advantage, these days Keir Starmer's isn't interested in leading public opinion. Not wanting to take a stand on anything, least of all something the Labour right regard as electoral Kryptonite, Starmer thinks remaining aloof from "culture war" issues will avoid him getting drawn into fighting where the Tories think they're comfortable and wield an advantage. But if the leader's office had a bit of nous about them, they might consider how Johnson is overplaying his hand. As we recently saw in Australia, the Coalition was pulverised because they had no answers on the pressing issues of the day and, crucially, a layer of their former support had grown fed up with their provocations and nonsense. The same is happening here with Tory worries about so-called Waitrose Woman and those stunning Liberal Democrat by-election victories. The harder the Tories push, the deeper they're driving a wedge into their own coalition. This layer, who found Tony Blair beguiling all those years ago, also exist in Labour's target seats - like the left wing voters Starmer has shown no interest in - and could be won to the party if our self-proclaimed "human rights lawyer" said something. But because Starmer wants to stay away from political struggle, he's unnecessarily handing the Tories the advantage of setting the terms of debate.

For now, refugees who were bound for Rwanda get to remain. But their future as political pawns in the Tories' games is, sadly, certain. As is the refusal of the official opposition to provide them and their supporters with any help.

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Monday 13 June 2022

Manipulating Common Sense

House hunting is a thankless task. Checking out would-be homes on the internet, cooing over the lovely interiors and the space, and cursing because the price is just outside the budget or the next door neighbour is the sewage works. But the biggest issue is money, or the lack thereof. According to research seized upon by The Times, about half of Britons think lifestyle choices are the reason why younger people can't save money. It's easy come, easy go as those surveyed blamed streaming services, phones, holidays, and the kebab shop. So I've done some sums. We've had Netflix for about six years. Assuming a year's worth of membership has been constant at £80/annum, that's £480 paid over during this period. Just think of the houses we could have bought with that money! Or if, for the last 10 years, we had had no takeaways, ate out nowhere, nor gone to the pub, I might have saved about £5,000. Were we not indisciplined oiks, a veritable Palace of Versailles would be within reach.

To the credit of the research's author, Kent's Bobby Duffy, he thinks this conclusion is a nonsense. He writes,
The suggestion that the huge challenges young people face in buying their own home can be solved by skipping fancy coffees and Netflix entirely misses the point, but it’s still believed by half the public. It also reflects our general tendency to think bad of today’s young people. Throughout history people always think the current youth are the worst ever.
The Times decided to go with the headline 'Baby boomers say struggling young should cut Netflix'. Mischievous and misleading, because on this occasion the attitudes of older people aren't that much different from the rest of the population. According to the report, 52% of Boomers identified Netflix-and-thrill spending as a key reason why young people couldn't save and get on the housing ladder. For Gen X'ers, it was 46%, Millennials 48%, and Gen Z 43%. In other words a large part of the population have got mugged, ideologically speaking. While some might shake their heads and sign half of everyone off, there was a more interesting finding. Asked 'the key reasons that young adults today cannot afford to buy their own home are things like the increase in house prices, stricter lending rules and low wage growth', 72% of Boomers agreed or strongly agreed. For Gen X it was 79%, Millennials 78%, and Zoomers 73%. Interesting.

What to make of this? People are conflicted and contradictory - very few are systematically coherent on absolutely everything. And in this sense, perhaps only in this sense, certain politicians are closer to the public they chase than their radical critics might think. But opinion polls don't measure reasoning or understanding. They measure opinions, funnily enough. At anyone time, polls usually find between a fifth and a quarter don't have a view on an issue that hasn't had wall-to-wall coverage and isn't immediately emotive, like the death penalty or retaining the monarchy. But others are happy to venture an opinion, whether they know about the topic or not. This is where common sense comes in, the everyday discourse that takes the given as given. It fills in the gaps when someone encounters an unfamiliar situation, and it's reinforced through interaction, chats, and popular culture. Because it values the immediate and the empirical, it can be easy to manipulate by elites if they have a large media platform and can render their talking points in its terms.

I hate to keep on talking about Margaret Thatcher, but as a politician she was very gifted at this sort of thing. For example, comparing it to and pushing the line that state financing was the same as household budgets was a stroke of genius. It took a highly abstract and complex process and reduced it to something almost everyone could grasp. It didn't matter that it was wrong and distorted the perception of British political economy, it enabled her and the Tories to capitalise on it politically. The continued resonance of 'the taxpayer' is because of the commonsensical, cynically empiricist spin all parties and newspapers have out on this since Thatcher set the terms of definition. It also becomes powerful move when a scapegoating gambit can be associated with familiar patterns of behaviour. Attacking the unemployed or single mums as lazy, feckless, or as spongers works because a lot of people think some known personally to them approximate these categories. It can be especially toxic when it connects with senses of sacrifice and grievance. But again, these ruses can prove potent because they chime with the everyday.

It's at a lower level to be sure, but are the takeaways and holidays findings that much of a surprise. The images fed back from television of young people are usually superficial and highly consumerist. Stick on YouTube or watch the TikToks, the portrayal fed to their audiences are mostly carefree and frivolous. Nowhere do we find the realities of single mums caught by rising prices, responsibility to their kids, and the need to work to make ends meet. Or of the young lad treated as a dogsbody by his bosses, who expect him to come at short notice whenever there's a gap in the schedule. Out of sight, out of mind. Plus everyone knows someone who always has a take out coffee in hand, or look to get away at every available opportunity. Asked the question about the unseriousness of young people, it's these familiar relationships that immediately jump to mind when someone ticks the yes box. Including among young people themselves.

But there are limits. Manipulating common sense can work, but it's never total. Because common sense is rooted in the empirical, manipulation only works if it goes with grain of its logics. Hence why we have the seemingly contradictory findings about low wages, prices, and property values. They're not contradictory at all because these crises impinge on daily life. The comfortable boomers, hitherto shielded from the consequences of Tory economics, are meeting rising prices and energy bills with fixed incomes. The experiences of their grand children, millions of whom are stuck in renting and have no visible path to home ownership, can't be ignored either. In other words, what the survey demonstrates is, what we might crudely characterise as the discursive, can't put food on the table. Manipulation is successful if it helps deliver the goods. If it doesn't there might be problems.

And this, obviously, is an issue for the Conservatives right now. Faced with multiple crises, we see a return to the carrot and the stick. The carrot with regard to energy price assistance and a cheap homes wheeze. And the stick here is not a rod to beat the electorate with, but one to be thrown in the hope the more excitable will chase it. The disgusting Rwanda scheme, attacks on striking workers, moaning about the woke, threats over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and blaming young people for their predicaments all play a part as weapons of mass distraction. But many of these don't run with the commonsensical grain, and as the crisis deepens, which it will, the more difficult it becomes for the Tories and their press allies to manipulate as they have previously.

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Saturday 11 June 2022

Xenon 2: Megablast for the Game Boy

Xenon 2 was a game praised to the nines upon its release. The venerable Computer and Video Games granted the Amiga version 96%. The screenshots jumped from the page with their cool, metallic sheen and well drawn sprites, and a sound track - Bomb the Bass's Megablast no less - to die for. When my more affluent mates got copies for their 16 bit computers, young stripling me with my recently acquired Spectrum was suitably impressed. Until I got to play it. The horribly overrated Konix Competition Pro sullied the Atari ST version for me, and on the Amiga I somehow managed to get to third level on my first go. Unfortunately my mate was having his tea so no one witnessed the feat, and he refused to believe me when he came back. Perhaps these experiences jaundiced me. The game was a technical achievement, but the looping soundtrack got older quicker than Bomb the Bass's commercial viability and game itself was so so. A Shadow of the Beast of vertical scrollers.

The developers, the Bitmap Brothers and their publishers, Mirrorsoft weren't complaining. It cemented the studio as noted technical virtuosos on the 16-bit micros, conferring on them a loyal following in the press and gushing reviews to come. And the money made probably stopped Robert Maxwell dipping as deeply into the pension funds as he might. Yet Xenon 2 persisted beyond the Amiga and ST. A conversion to the Sega Master System was next. A curious choice but on a machine not overly blessed with vertical scrolling shooters, an understandable one. It looked good by 8-bit standards but was chuggingly slow to the point of unplayability - but it scored respectably in the magazines and sold reasonably. I guess gamers were a lot more patient then. The Mega Drive version came next, which I picked up for a song early in my retro-hunting career. And it's pretty poor. This port looked the part, but the rendering of Megablast is weak and the gameplay paled against the competition. Without the bells and whistles, the faults were magnified. No autofire function until it's purchased from the in-game shop, and then the rate of fire is so slow enemy swarms simply dance through the bullet streams. Terrible level design, and one of them missing in the MD version made for a pointless waste. Then came the curve ball port: this version.

For a game designed to show off the power of 16-bit gaming, it's unlikely the Bitmap Brothers intended ever porting their flagship game to the most primitive, monochromatic hand-held console on the market. But it happened and, if anything, the Game Boy version is the best of the lot. For the uninitiated, the baddies have planted bombs throughout history to wipe lovely humans from the timeline. This was the foil for five stages of shoot 'em up mayhem, where the player has to dispatch legions of trilobite, molluscs, squidgy worm things, slugs and weird pulsating blobs with no correct animal analogue. Except on the Game Boy's tiny screen they're just wobbling collections of pixels. These things also have the propensity to enter the screen from anywhere, so wits are required. The end of the stage features the customary boss, which includes a mine spewing nautilus, a giant spider, a viperfish and an assortment of other lovelies. Pretty standard mechanics so far.

Xenon 2 does enjoy the same original feature in all its versions: a shop. All enemies or enemy waves drop tokens, which can be traded in at the shop for power ups. There are plenty to choose from, with rapid fire, rear and side shots, lasers, missiles, and speed ups being the weapons of choice. However, because this is a British-developed game and the temptation to be a bit naff was too difficult to resist, duff power ups are available. These include the expensive Bitmap Shades which does nothing but dims the screen for a short while. And Super Nashwan Power, which temporarily gifts an arsenal of power-ups. In a triumph of poor game design, this applies for something like 10 seconds shortly after leaving the shop and your ship isn't assailed by anyone. But what is a nice touch, present in all versions, is that power ups are physically added to the ship - extending the sense of invulnerability common to games of this sort, and ensuring such overconfidence will be the death of you. Another feature is you can reverse and force the screen to scroll backwards - except for boss fights. This is essential as daft levels mid-game feature maze-like structures that often resolve into dead ends and lengthy backtracking without any enemies to kill. Edgy design or a simple irritant? You decide.

Unlike the Sega ports, the Game Boy has all the levels and everything else is here. The daft premise, the awful level design, the deep sea baddies, the lot. The game plays better than the other versions because the enemy sprites hit boxes are larger, making for a less frustrating game. But this isn't to say Xenon 2 has shed the Amiga/Atari ST trappings for its quality to shine through. The game is more playable, yes, but it's no masterpiece. Nintendo's early Game Boy title, Solar Striker, is a better blaster. By boiling it down to its constituents the simplicity of the game stands revealed, it shows the cracks the lick of 16-bit paint the developers expertly covered. But also its simplicity is what made it ideal Game Boy fodder. Embarrassed by the riches of so many titles that were pick up and play (though it had its share of rpgs and, bizarrely, god games), Xenon 2 slotted into the console's library seamlessly. And it probably would have been ignored as so many others have fallen into barely-played obscurity, were it not a curio port of a 16-bit tech demo.

Friday 10 June 2022

The Faces of Wes Streeting

There aren't many occasions when I've nearly fallen off the sofa, but Thursday night's Question Time almost decanted me onto the floor. On a panel packed with rightwingers and asked about the railworkers' industrial action, Wes Streeting, uber Blairite pretender to Keir Starmer's throne, defended the RMT, the right to take strike action, said he would have voted for stoppages in their position, and called for the nationalisation of the rail network. I was forced to check the shadow health minister hadn't been replaced by a Corbynist doppelganger, but no. It was definitely him. Coming after Lisa Nandy had made similar remarks about the strike before an anonymous party spox rowed back on her behalf, people are entitled to ask what's going on. Can our would-be leaders smell the ichor dripping from Starmer's lacklustre leadership? Are both tacking left in case Starmer and Angela Rayner are forced to resign over BeerGate? That was the consensus of Labour's Twitter watchers today. And who am I to contest the wisdom of my crowd?

But I'm going to. Partially. Having tweeted out the clips from Question Time, Streeting provided proof that rail nationalisation is a policy he's long supported. An aberration? A strange affectation among a policy preferences marinated in soggy centrism? Further evidence that Streeting's position might not just be about position-taking can be found in his Fabians pamphlet from a couple of years ago. A piece which, while not Corbyn-lite, was a recognisably Labourist document with all the weaknesses and contradictions that entails. Could it be, shock of all shocks, Streeting's defence of striking workers comes from genuine goodwill?

No, I haven't gone soft on Streeting. We all know what he did between 2015 and 2019. He's loyally followed Starmer's most damaging policies, is signed up to the same try-hard prostration before British institutions, and most scabby of all showed that he was looking forward to "getting tough" with teachers while handling shadow schools brief. But it's not enough to say Streeting's declaration for the RMT was posturing ahead of a contest that's probably not going to happen. Instead, his two facedness is not a character flaw but a characteristic of Labourism itself.

The fairy tale goes something like this. The trade unions, ILP, Fabians, and the Social Democratic Federation came together to form the Labour Party. In a fit of sectarian pique, the nominally Marxist SDF pulled out because the party would not commit to its programme - well done those lads for condemning scientific socialism to the margins of the labour movement. But Labour was a socialist party and stood for the interests of the movement that founded it. If only it wasn't for the Labour right who hijacked the thing and rail-roaded the party into successive compromises with the capitalist interest, culminating in Tony Blair. They have consistently betrayed everything Labourism stands for. Except they haven't. Before the party was founded, the dominant ideas in the labour movement were mixes of religious preachifying, Spencerian evolutionism, syndicalism, ethical socialism, and pleading of the most cringing, forelock tugging sort. Leading party cadres embodied these contradictions. Dear old Keir Hardie, whose impoverished upbringing and toil down the mines led him to espouse a fiery socialism based on moral virtue and not a political appreciation of his formative circumstances. Or Philip Snowden, a Labour politician explicitly opposed to strikes and extra-parliamentary politics in all their forms. Or Ramsay MacDonald who did so much to establish the party's independence from the Liberals, only to join with the Tories.

These ideas were weak but reflected the lived reality of Labourism. The 1825 Combinations of Workmen Act permitted trade unionism only for the purposes of pressing for wages and hours worked. This decriminalisation created an incentive for the infant labour movement to stick to the most basic bread and butter issues, bedding down economism and creating a common sense that issues of high politics, or politics generally, were alien and beyond the competencies of the movement. The subaltern position of the worker was institutionalised from the start. But at the same time, through incremental struggle with employers - and the immediate failure of the mass mobilisations of Chartism - constitutional struggle was sanctified, the law respected, and parliament identified as the only institution that can change the workers' lot for the better. This was the material basis for the ideas that came to define and dominate Labourism - ideas the proved a boon in building the unions, the cooperative movement, and later the politics. But simultaneously hobbled the party by not providing the resources for a serious critique that might challenge the system, and indeed warded against developing such a theory. In these circumstances, had the SDF stayed on winning Marxist converts in Labour would have proven a difficult job.

Labourism since has moved on, but the basics have not. These traditions reach down into the present in all shades of Labourist opinion - the hard and soft left, Momentum, the Fabians, Progressive Britain, and Labour First. They have changed but the enabling/disabling fusion characteristic of Labour habits and ideas are unchanged. And this is where Wes Streeting comes in. He talks up one group of workers and defends them against crude Tory divide-and-rule tactics, but he spent the first four years of his parliamentary career combating the Labourism that articulated and defended all workers. He speaks about rail nationalisation and underfunding the network, while wanting to expand private healthcare into the NHS, ostensibly to reduce waiting lists. There are many other instances of ping-ponging from left to right and back again. Streeting might betray the class he came out of, but he does not betray Labourism. On the contrary rather than being a careerist alien to the Labour tradition, he embodies it.

Thursday 9 June 2022

Boris Johnson's Housing Counterrevolution

"PM wants benefits claimants to be able to buy homes." At last, a positive BBC news website headline for Boris Johnson and one not about PartyGate, the no confidence vote, and circling backbenchers. With the lack of detail customary to his style, Johnson's new property policy would allow Universal Credit recipients the option of paying it into a mortgage fund instead of handing over rent. Either Johnson thinks rents are something renters pay if they feel like it, or the government are going to step in and cover the cost. We don't know because chances are the government don't know themselves yet. The second element of what can only be loosely termed a plan for want of another word, is to force right to buy on housing associations with a pledge that every home sold off would be replaced like-for-like.

Superficially the politics of Johnson's new right to buy gets his blighted government out of several holes. He has given his levelling up agenda the appearance of forward momentum when it's still on the starting blocks and is likely to remain there. It gives a hand up for people locked out of property ownership, and so ticks the one nation box. And for Tories who think in the longer term, turning social renters into home owners has conservatising effects that their party will reap the electoral benefit from further down the road. And lastly, it helps out the Tory landlord base by eating into the social housing sector and removing lower rent competition. A nice bit of triangulation that keeps its traditional backers happy and is pregnant with the possibility of creating new Tories, right?

Unfortunately for Johnson, implementing it comes with the sorts of difficulties he'd soon get bored of before moving on to something else. Taking property from one arm of the state and selling it off, as Margaret Thatcher did with her famous right to buy scheme, is one thing. But quite another to expropriate the private property of independently incorporated organisations and flog them at a discount. It's a legal minefield and one sure to keep the lawyers happy, especially if the forthcoming legislation is sloppy and leaves the government open to court challenge. Johnson's pledge to work with the sector to find the best way of dismembering it is a recipe for a veritable dog's dinner. Then there is the diminishing of social housing stock. Selling one house doesn't mean another can be whipped up in short order. New builds take time, and housing associations will require new plots to build them on. If the government returns to them the value of the expropriated house, are they going to assist with land purchases too? And if their existing stock is vulnerable to sell offs, it becomes more difficult for associations to access finance for new construction. On these crucial, practical issues, Johnson expended not a single utterance.

Then there are problems with getting people on social security on the housing ladder: doing so requires serious reform of how UC and mortgage financing works. As Andrew Fisher rightly notes, banks typically require a 10% deposit for a house. Average prices are hovering around the £280k mark, but most forms of UC won't pay out if a recipient has savings of £16k an over. And so there's one gaping hole in the mooted scheme. Either the savings roof is abolished or significantly raised, the government massively subsidises prices so they're in reach, or they legislate against the banks to force them to drop the deposit threshold. Whichever way you look at it, the policy can mean handing money over to people the Tories have spent the last 12 years attacking and defaming, or they significantly intervene in the housing market. Thinking about the febrile state of the parliamentary party, it's going to cause jitters among the ruling class warriors and the hard neoliberals alike. Parliamentary rebellions can't be ruled out.

This is Johnson's idea of getting on with the job. Almost three years as Prime Minister and there's still nothing to show of his pledge to regenerate and rebalance the British economy. The housing shortage remains as prices and rents climb ever higher, there's no action on the cost of living, and destitution stalks the land with greater swagger than it ever did during the Tories' austerity years. The impact of Johnson's scheme will benefit a handful of people and shrink the capacity of social providers to build. Meanwhile there's no relief for anyone else. If anything, it retrenches the the dysfunctions in the provision of housing. Johnson billed this a "revolution". No, but it certainly looks like a counterrevolution.

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Wednesday 8 June 2022

From Comrade to Renegade

I've never understood it myself, but left and liberal journalists paying fealty to and fancying themselves the next George Orwell are ten a penny in British politics. Perhaps it's his prose, which he famously likened to being as transparent as glass. Or his reportage, of which Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, and Homage to Catalonia are stand out examples of excellent journalism. Or might it be the novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, who've left indeligble marks on English letters and the political imaginary?

Paul Mason has seemingly approached Orwell's example from another direction: by looking to collaborate with the security services to take down his opponents and critics on the left. In a bundle of documents leaked to The Grayzone, we have emails and a crude network relief supposedly demonstrating the relationship between the Russian and Chinese states, websites, organisations and politicians, and the constituencies they appeal to.

This is obviously a grotesque smear, and one not without consequences. There are organisations that happily apologise for the Kremlin and Beijing, but there are plenty of people and outfits on the list that do not. Tribune, Young Labour, Jeremy Corbyn and the other named left MPs, and Novara are anti-Putin and opposed his invasion of Ukraine. And even for those who are Putin adjacent, do they not have the right to peddle their politics free from the interference of the state and MI5 cosplayers? The leaked materials are setting up leftists to be on the receiving end of potential vigilante action. And need we mention the recklessness and racist stupidity of linking the black and Muslim communities to the influence of outside powers?

How did Mason pass from his membership of Workers Power to the BBC and Channel 4 News to left celebrity journalist to apparently begging to be of service to this country's spook establishment? It's a spectacular collapse that puts other passages to the right to shame. Only having met him the once when we shared a platform with Chris Williamson (how times change) at Derby Transformed in 2018, I can only comment on the politics of his trajectory. What made Mason an effective broadcast journalist wasn't just a talent for making complex topics simple, as per his coverage of the 2008 crash and the aftermath, or his personal courage when he live broadcast from Gaza during the Israeli bombings of 2014, but the fact working mainstream outlets disciplined him. The tension produced by performing neutrality and impartiality in these circumstance were, for him, a productive one and helped Mason win a deal of respect in the left and labour movement. While not overtly leftwing, he did give due respect and fairness to those he interviewed and reported on. But this wasn't just a case of "one of us" making it big in a hostile environment. His books, particularly Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere and Postcapitalism were well received.

After C4 News he returned to activism, using his platform to promote Corbynism while pursuing his own journalism projects. This is where the problems started. Freed from contraints, the throughtful and nuanced Mason of old rapidly gave away to a forceful and bombastic character that enjoyed browbeating allies as much as opponents. The trolling of Progress conference in 2017 was good for a laugh. But the same uncompromising and often uncomprehending treatment was meted out to comrades too. As the contradictions within Corbynism sharpened, especially among the membership and supporters over Brexit, Mason dropped into the delicate tensions with all the finesse of a 100 lb bomb. He waged the war for remain in his characteristic manner. Aligning politically with a section of the establishment, I suppose it wasn't much of a shock when he came out for Keir Starmer in the post-Corbyn leadership contest, and has stuck doggedly to him since. As he memorably put it, "If you don't think KS will advance the class struggle you're possibly not understanding social democracy correctly from a Marxist viewpoint."

Since then, Mason's politics, which he maintains are still anti-capitalist, have merged seamlessly with the traditional positions of the Labour right on foreign affairs. The invasion of Ukraine has seen him elevate NATO to the status of a fetish and an organisation whose existence can no longer be questioned. The only difference between Mason and Starmer on Labour's position on NATO is Mason pushes it with the zealotry of a true believer. He sees Ukraine as the frontline in a tripartite world divided between Russian and Chinese imperialisms, and the NATO alliance of liberal democracies. The war in the Donbas is the war for liberty and freedom, and NATO our shield against the threats from the east.

Plenty of people have made not dissimilar journeys to the right, but seldom do they express a desire to turn cop and police the movement they've left behind. If you're looking to entertain a good faith explanation for this, Mason's superficial and shaky snapshot of international relations means the West are at war with two authoritarian rivals. No quarter can be given to those who might straight up support their machinations, equivocate, or even bring a bit of nuance to analysing tensions between the great powers. What is more likely is the logical culmination of a personal I-know-best politics desperately craving to put pay to his opponents by psyopping and using dirty tricks to drive them out of politics, leaving the field of "permissible" radicalism to decents like Mason. Or this is one hell of a differentiation strategy to show those on the Labour right he's desperate to court that he's one of them, and is happy to traduce, libel, and expose leftists to danger to prove this.

This is the final straw for Mason. There's no coming back from this. His passage from comrade to renegade is completed.

Tuesday 7 June 2022

Why Isn't Labour 20 Points Ahead? (Again)

Following Monday night's no confidence vote on Boris Johnson, a layer of MPs breathed a sigh of relief. On the opposition benches. For the polls that have been consistently favourable to Labour are reflective of an anti-Johnson sentiment rather than anti-Tory feeling or enthusiasm for the works of Keir Starmer. And this will continue for as long as Downing Street's tenant remains in situ. Why isn't Labour doing better? We visited this issue in January last year. Then, the party had just slipped behind the Tories and ahead of it lay the dismal local election results and the loss of Hartlepool. And now, after a calamitous year of pandemic failure, a cost of living catastrophe, and the public exposure of Johnson's thoroughly dishonest character, it's reasonable to expect Labour to clean up.

Trying to explain what's happening, a superficial survey by Ben Walker of Britain Elects suggests Labour is held back by the party's unpopularity (in marketing speak, the brand is tarnished), and is trailing the Tories on the economy. Counter-intuitively it leads on living standards and how to protect them - that's polling for you. Ben also notes Keir Starmer isn't a negative, but nor is he much of an asset. The Starmer effect is neutral. But again, why? Does it come down to these two simple factors? No.

There are two interrelated difficulties Labour has to navigate. Recalling the Corbyn interlude, between 2017 and 2019 politics was polarised. Though it wasn't much commented on at the time, Theresa May lost her majority but attracted a substantial voting bloc who remained wedded to the Tories up to the point where her position completely dissolved at the 2019 EU elections. As we know, Boris Johnson picked up the pieces and added to this solid base. Labour's Brexit position, which was not an easy one fell apart and the election was lost. But Johnson's Leave bloc stuck with the Tories well into 2020, lifting him even higher during the most dangerous moments of the pandemic. There's been an awful lot of water under the bridge since then and the bodies have piled high, to coin a phrase. But the reasons why Johnson was popular two years ago applies to that solid 30-35% of the electorate who, despite everything, are still prepared to back the Tories.

"Ah!" a wiseacre Labour strategist might note, "we can - and are - easily out polling the hardcore Tory vote." And we should hush such foolishness. This is true, but as of March this year about 11-12% of 2019 Tory voters are moving to Labour. About five per cent of the same have moved into the "don't know" column, which means when push comes to shove they're probably going to slide back to the Conservatives and the small-to-middling poll leads Labour keep posting evaporates.

We have to acknowledge that the smaller parties have scooped up some of Labour's vote. Since Scottish Labour's debacle at the 2014 independence referendum, about two percentage points have been lost to the SNP. The Liberal Democrat performance at the 2019 election, which saw them put on four percentage points has, again, probably resulted in a permanent loss of one or two points. And the consolidation of the Greens have also peeled away between two and three per cent. Six to seven points gone from Labour's coalition helps explain wy we're not seeing bigger leads in the polls, while double-digit margins are rare and fleeting. If only something could be done?

It can, because this is politics and not some force of nature. My argument has never been that left wing policies are a magic bullet that can overcome Labour's issues, but taking a clue from the party's name and rooting its message and politics in the labour interest is a good place to begin. But this is what Keir Starmer will not countenance. Rather than beginning with the base Labour has and building out from there, Starmer has adopted from New Labour the idea the party's working class base is culturally conservative, roughly correlates with the people Johnson won in 2019, and whose aspirations are at odds with what the labour movement is trying to achieve. And so we're left with a strategy that does three things. It declares fealty to the flag and British institutions, which looks inauthentic and try hard. It's conspicuous about not offering anything, and lastly when the party does take a position on something it's been so focus grouped to death that policy is well behind where public opinion is. Lockdowns, free school meals, universal credit increases, and the windfall tax - in each instance party positioning tailed, not led the electorate.

The consequence of this is exactly what we see in the polling. Starmer is rendering permanent the 2019 splits in the anti-Tory forces, and is left trying to put together a non-aggression treaty on the down low. Beats the hard job of political struggle and winning support back, I suppose. But by refusing to stand up for the labour interest, he's not only alienating people who should be on board he's not even contesting the Tories where they're the weakest and Labour is the strongest: on housing, on jobs, on living standards. This is the Labour leader who thought it smart politics to greet Rishi Sunak's energy bill wheeze with a plaintive cry of "where's he getting the money from?" Starmer has no gravitas because his leadership has no gravity. And so those Tory don't knows and others who might be persuadable to switch, if they haven't already, are just left to their own devices with the Labour leader hoping abstract appeals to patriotism will win them over.

If Johnson hangs on, it's possible this weak sauce strategy could be enough to see Labour over the line and into Downing Street in two years' time. But if not, then Starmer's preference for effectively doing nothing and not being his opponent falls to bits. What might work, however, is building a strong, rooted Labour politics now while the advantage is with him. But this requires recognising what the party is, its position in politics, who the people are who support it and why, and how this is the base for drawing in wider layers. And so far, over two years into his leadership, Starmer's shown scant interest in that.

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Monday 6 June 2022

Lurching from Crisis to Crisis

By 211 votes to 148, Boris Johnson has survived his long-promised no confidence vote. Speaking Monday afternoon, the ever-loyal Jacob Rees-Mogg said the Prime Minister would carry on even if the margin of victory was one vote. A margin of 63 then is more than enough. If we've learned anything about Johnson since he took office, he'll cling to power like a limpet. But this doesn't mean things won't stop getting more difficult. For six months, the polls have reported leads for Labour. Numbers reflecting the blight Johnson is inflicting on his party more than enthusiasm for whatever Keir Starmer is offering. These will not change. Nor will the inescapable fact that the Tories are now more divided than they were under Theresa May. Looking at her no confidence vote in late 2018, she won 200 votes to 117. In today's parliamentary money, that would be 229 to 134 - significantly better than what Johnson managed. This means problems for the legislative programme should Johnson whip for anything controversial, and plenty of hay-making for the opposition parties. More wounding still is what this does to the position of the Conservatives in the country. Polling is consistent with almost two-thirds saying Johnson should have resigned over PartyGate. 211 MPs have thumbed their nose at the public and told them their sacrifices didn't matter, and that obeying the law is an optional extra for the higher ups. It's a danger some, but not enough, Tory MPs are aware of. And by the same brush they too will be tarred.

Johnson limps on. He's not "fucked", as the never-right have pronounced. But he is wounded and the survival rates for Conservative leaders after a no confidence vote are not in Johnson's favour. How did we did we end up in this situation? Events, dear boy, events. You don't need me to recount how Johnson has played a most favourable political hand badly. There has been nothing stopping him, once the emergency moment of the pandemic eased, from storming ahead with his promises. But instead he's left his dangerous subordinates to run riot with stupid and ruinous policies while letting the good will of getting Brexit done and the vaccination campaign drain away. Thinking about the milestones of the last year that have done for him: the National Insurance rise, the effort to save Owen Paterson from the chop, and then the PartyGate debacle, one is struck by how they're unforced errors. But are they?

Long term tendencies work their way through the actions and activities of politicians. Sometimes they're conscious of it, but mostly they're oblivious. This is true of Johnson and his coterie as much as anyone else. On the conscious side of things, there has been the statecraft that revealed itself in the 2019 manifesto. Do nothing. That is talk up a good storm and let loose the faintest of breezes. Johnson was able to bulldoze through his Brexit as promised, but the rest? Instead of addressing this country's severe regional imbalances, nothing has been done. Even worse, once the pandemic got underway and the Tories had to step in to nationalise the UK's wage bill, abolish conditionalities for social security while bumping up payments, solve homelessness overnight, and offer billions in support for businesses big and small, they have done everything to row this back. Not just in terms of reversing these schemes, but clamping down on people's expectations. It's not enough to cut support for Johnson and friends, they want to cut the expectation of support. Going through the last two years, whether it's refusing to sack Dominic Cummings, refusing to act on free school meals, refusing to implement circuit-breaking lockdowns, refusing to support all the self-employed, refusing to help on energy bills, refusing to let Owen Paterson go, refusing to take responsibility for PartyGate, and even refusing to save Geronimo the bloody Alpaca, the Tories have tried simplifying politics by encouraging people not to expect anything from it. And doing nothing comes with costs, as polling and recent elections attest. If do-nothing statecraft is the game, it's a requirement Johnson is particularly well suited to.

Then there is the wider problem the Tories have, their long-term decline. There are two aspects of this complex process of immediate concern to us. The first is how Johnson was instrumental in building and holding together a voter coalition of mainly the old and the propertied. They're more susceptible to right wing, authoritarian politics, and they're not replacing themselves like-for-like as they pass on. Johnson's achievement was to consolidate what May mobilised, but the legacy he bequeaths his successor, whenever that may be, is that the Tories are boxed in to supporting this shrinking constituency with much weaker purchase outside it. The second symptom of Tory decline is a certain lack of rootedness. Historically, the Conservative Associations were, believe it or not, more likely to be the preserve of women than men, and these provided not just an army of activists but in-between elections they doubled up as semi-charitable and community-minded concerns. The typical Tory member was not quite the village busy-body, but they were rooted in place and kept the Conservative flame burning. The super safe shire and rural seats are the fruits of decades of this low-level activity. But today the party's body politic is not only much reduced, but it is more male, more inactive, much less community-minded, and tend toward privatised lives. The party's demographics therefore reflect a real enough trend in the wider population, but not one that allows for the Tories to have local presences beyond the efforts of activist leaflet drops.

This absence of rootedness doubles up in its relationship to British business. As argued here many times, the core Tory concern is the preservation of capitalist relations of production first, and the continued dominance of the City of London second (hence, it's helpful to see the Tory Brexit wars inflected by debates within the City about whether its interests were best served by remaining in the EU or being a financial and commercial clearing house outside its jurisdiction). The destruction of the ad hoc Keynesian arrangements of the post-war settlement, the eradication of huge quantities of industrial capital and the diversion of some into property and finance as increasingly important vectors of accumulation led to a looser relationship between the party and the class it serves. The superficial dynamism and strength of speculative capital characterised more transactional arrangements among the Conservatives and its well-heeled supporters. The donors expected bangs for their bucks, which the Tories were too happy to indulge. It meant, after Thatcher, a pattern of politics even more short-termist and myopic. Interestingly, this afforded the party more political autonomy as it flitted between individual money bags, leading it into self-immolating and counter-productive trajectories than one might expect. Structurally speaking the Conservatives were complacent. Decadent even. The do-nothing strategy of the Tories and the indolent figure of Johnson himself are best fits for a party running on the vapours of the past.

The problem for any institution with withering linkages is a propensity to crisis. As such, the Conservatives have long been a stranger to the stability it stands for, both in the party's internally fractious operations and the divisive damage it inflicts on the society it governs. The no confidence vote and Johnson's disastrous leadership are examples of both, and because the social position of the party hasn't changed there will be many more crises to come.

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