Wednesday 31 August 2022

Liz Truss's Victory Lap

Two months of solid torture are over. The final Conservative Party leadership hustings touched down in Wembley Arena this Wednesday evening. In front of 7,000 members, Liz Truss and Rish! Sunak went through the motions about the bright blue vistas that lie ahead under their leaderships. For the former chancellor, we heard the same story about his inspiring parents and how family is everything to him, that Britain is a big hearted country, and that he hasn't done himself any favours by telling the truth about the reality of inflation and piling up government debt. But he forgets this is a Tory contest and the membership are not interested in practicalities and truth-telling.

Truss has deftly avoided such self-denying ordinance, and enthusiastically panders to her selectorate's prejudices. Her stump speech has barely changed for two months. There are the digs at the political correctness she was force fed at school, which is likely to be concocted nonsense considering she left in 1991. There's the cringe of "aspiration nation", talk of new ways of doing things and "boldness", and her commitment to junk all EU law by the end of 2023 to unlock the "opportunities" of Brexit. There was wild applause for saying she stood up to Putin, when she couldn't even stand up to Nick Robinson. And, like every other hustings, she "knows what a woman is" and wants to expand the Rwanda scheme.

As this was the last hustings and Truss is expected to become Prime Minister on Monday, Sunak tried to paper over what was often a bad tempered and divisive contest with warm words. He said "Liz" deserved a tribute as a "proud and passionate conservative." The task of the Tories would be to unite around her because only their party can provide the leadership the country needs. Having sucked up, he then quickly spat it back out. The well-rehearsed and oft-heard lines that her prospectus meant maxing out the country's credit card via cutting taxes and running up government borrowing is "not right, responsible, or conservative." Keir Starmer is grateful for his freelance PMQs coach..

Moving on to Truss's questions and answers, LBC's Nick Ferrari didn't provide much of a challenge. Asked why she was focussing too much in Ukraine and not Uxbridge, she said it was her job as foreign secretary to focus on foreign affairs. News for some. Asked about crime, out came the predictable attacks on Sadiq Khan about him being soft. At least she didn't refer to him as 'Mayor Khan', which Tories like to do on their leaflets in the capital's wealthier, whiter areas. But we did get something not emphasised in previous hustings - setting up league tables for police forces. Not likely to go down well with the plod vote.

On energy prices, her vow of silence was maintained in favour of the familiar licks and grooves. No taking money in tax and paying it back in handouts, the suspension on the green levy, reverse the National Insurance rise, and increase the supply of energy. Quite how fracking, more North Sea exploration, and ordering more Rolls Royce nuclear reactors will immediately address supply is something she didn't expand on. Nor challenged on by a single host in any of the hustings. She also said there will be a "fiscal event" for household support, and at this stage she's not ruling anything in or out. Yet within five minutes she did exactly that by saying there wouldn't be any new taxes - already setting herself at odds with Labour's popular position and setting herself up for inevitable u-turns.

The rest of the questions should have been easy. Answering a young Tory who wanted Truss to declare trans women were not women, she happily obliged. Truss said Tories need to stand up against "the orthodoxy", and not value people for who they are but for their character and hard work. Cue applause. And then, as if some cosmic joker was pulling the strings, another audience member got up and said he was a British Ukrainian - to enthusiastic clapping. And so, the dread transphobia hasn't gone away - something that should give any labour movement person signed up to this rubbish some pause.

And wrapping up, we got a signature Truss gaffe. An activist objecting to smart motorways asked Truss to consider scrapping them, and if she would do the same for speed limits and make them advisory. He suggested it was up to the judgement of drivers to determine what's safe or not. It was the sort of bat shit question that have so far been screened out by hustings organisers in an effort to make the Tories look half sane. It's not difficult. In 2021 there were 128,000 casualties on Britain's roads, of which 1,560 died, and should have been an open and shut case. "No" was the obvious answer, but because Truss was in full-on pander mode she couldn't resist a non-committal reply and said she would "look at speed limits".

There ends the final lap before Truss becomes Prime Minister. What we've learned from these hustings is a rigidity married to genuine cluelessness, and a tendency to speak before she thinks. We've had the public sector regional pay plan, the suggestion Emmanuel Macron might be "a foe" of the UK, the recordings suggesting British workers "lack application", and now this. The politics, the scapegoating and opportunist bigotry, the foot-in-mouth tendency, here we have a character that, if anything, is even less suited than Boris Johnson to be Prime Minister. And yet here we are. The decay of the Tory party has thrown up another horror, and one that will cause untold damage before the party is dumped from office.

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Tuesday 30 August 2022

How to Solve the Cost of Living Crisis?

Our favourite podcast, Politics Theory Other was at the Progressive Economy Forum earlier in June. Alex recorded several of the sessions, including this roundtable between James Meadway, Susan Newman, and Rupert Russell on how to tackle the cost of living crisis - a situation that has got much worse since the discussion was first uploaded.

Monday 29 August 2022

Usdaw and Right Wing Trade Unionism

"I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome", so said Clement Attlee to Harold Laski. Choosing a different form of words, Usdaw general secretary Paddy Lillis said the same to Unite general secretary Sharon Graham Monday morning on Radio 4. Having raised Sharon's ire by equivocating on matters industrial, she has criticised Keir Starmer for failing to stick up for workers. "This isn't fair" cried Paddy into the BBC microphone because he's "demonstrated time and time again that he’s on the side of workers." He goes on, "We need to be, as a trade union and Labour movement, putting the blame squarely where it belongs, and that’s with this Tory government, who have been missing in action."

"Missing in action", another variance of the "asleep at the wheel" trope. Has Paddy forgot what a trade union is for? Labour was founded by the organised labour movement, and it's a dereliction of a general secretary's duty, especially when the union is an affiliate, to simply give the party leader a free pass when they do nothing to challenge Tory narratives about strikes and collective action. Paddy would do well to reflect that Sharon was elected on an organising agenda - which is more than can be said for his inheriting the general secretaryship in 2017 after raising the nomination threshold to prevent an election from happening.

When it comes to the trade union movement, Usdaw is one of two unions who can relied on by the Labour right to always vote their way. The other is Community. Formed from a merger of two much-reduced unions, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades, Community's supine loyalty to the Parliamentary Labour Party was enshrined on day one when it made then chancellor Gordon Brown its first official member. Embarrassing. It's small as unions go, and has been rightly characterised as a property portfolio with a side hustle in service trade unionism. Therefore, its rightism isn't too difficult to explain - a point underlined by its recent swallowing of Voice, the Derby-based education "union" that refused to take strike action as a point of principle. No wonder Margaret Thatcher was a fan and variously promoted it.

Usdaw, however, is a proper union and one that represents some of the most exploited and underpaid workers in the country, primarily in retail and warehousing. Coupled with this are some very impressive density rates, usually of 90%+ in some supermarkets where they have a recognition agreement. How can a workforce who aren't just at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis, but one dangerously exposed during the initial phases of the pandemic and have lost out thanks to Tory cuts to social security before that give rise to a right wing union? One element is how the bureaucracy reproduces itself from the shop floor rep upwards. Facilities time here is particularly corrosive, allowing reps to be separated from the workforce and variously flattered by management and the away days put on by the union itself. Furthermore, unlike the RMT, for example, which provides political education to its members, the stress here is on partnership working. Usdaw identifies job security and maintaining its mass membership with the interests of the employer, and therefore the stress is on not rocking the boat, defusing tensions, and more often than not acting as unpaid health and safety at work consultants. The results are no-strike sweetheart deals, little to no industrial action, and duff pay agreements. Like the two per cent rise it agreed with Morrison's in June.

Historically, the right have thrived in recent decades because of the character of retail work. The old pottery union, the Ceramic and Allied Trade Union, was similarly comatose because pot banks, despite concentrating thousands of employees in huge workplaces, were deliberately sub-divided by a division of labour that came with their own petty status hierarchies and different wage rates. Supermarkets are very similar, with rungs of supervisors and managers spread across different departments, the separation of shopfloor, office, and behind-the-scenes functions, and a further cadre of management overseeing the lot. Workers often have to compete among themselves for "overtime" as many are taken on on part-time contracts with few set guaranteed hours. Traditionally, supermarkets recruited heavily from women and students who were looking for supplementary income, and this remains a key component of the workforce - but it also means they don't have much of a stake and can turnover very quickly. Lastly, despite the carefully stratified workplace the social proximity of manager and worker is very close. They eat and socialise in the same canteen, they often work cheek by jowl when staff are short and managers have to get stuck in on the shop floor. And, crucially, most managers have spent time on the tills, the shelves, or the trolleys as ordinary workers themselves. In other words, something of a (face-fitting) meritocracy is in place where it is possible for a Saturday shelf stacker to ascend to store boss. These problems present difficulties for the development of an oppositional trade union consciousness, and so Usdaw sidesteps them by offering a mix of service unionism, perks for activists and lay reps, and an ethos entirely compatible with management aims. And so in normal times a relatively inchoate work force that is not counteracted by the union allows for a bureaucracy happy with its place as a privileged mediator between employer and employee, and one it would jealously defend against those who might upset it.

These, however, are not normal times. As Polly Smythe reports, there is discontent among the Usdaw rank-and-file. With strike action looking to spread across different industries as we enter the Autumn, and a campaign making the case for more action, Usdaw members might start asking why its leaders are content for them to get by with a two per cent "pay rise" when inflation is in double figures. Or, when they see other workers striking to protect workplace conditions that Usdaw has long conceded, why they were merrily frittered away for an industrial peace that has just meant a one-sided class war? For retail is labour intensive and can easily be brought to a screeching halt by determined strike action.

Usdaw is a right wing union now, but the pressures of the cost of living crisis and the changing mood among the labour movement writ large means this could change quickly. When the frustrations of the 400k plus membership boil over, no amount of partnership pleas and right wing shenanigans will keep a lid on it.

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Sunday 28 August 2022

The Tories Are Not "Asleep at the Wheel"

Anyone who's been around Stoke-on-Trent for a while will have noticed some changes. Hanley Park, for example, has had serious money pumped into the place. The boat house, band stand, and pavilion restored after decades of dereliction, the grounds regularly tended to and the paths resurfaced. If one wanders up to the city centre via the Potteries Museum, you cannot but notice the giant fish tank jutting out from the building with a Spitfire on display. Elsewhere, heritage features have got spruced up and there's more construction happening now with even more in the pipeline. Nearly all of this has been led by Stoke-on-Trent City Council and its Tory administration. But behind the hard hats and scaffolding is a darker story. One in which social services have been downgraded, where children's services were so poor that Oftsed condemned them in 2019 with the lowest possible rating. And where homeless, domestic violence, and addiction support have been eviscerated. This strategy of putting flower beds before hostel beds is not a result of Tory ignorance. It's not a case of Tory councillors putting money into arms-length build-to-lets because they don't know about the desperate misery caused by slashing services. It's deliberate and done in the full knowledge of the suffering their decisions cause.

How the Tories have managed local politics in the Potteries always springs to mind when I see people complaining about the Tories on social media. A favourite is 'the Conservatives are asleep at the wheel'. This could be forgiven if coming from ordinary punters who don't follow politics closely, but it's a well-mined seam senior Labour people go digging in. Telling the government to "get a grip" on the crisis is a common missive in what passes for Keir Starmer's invective. Claiming the Tories don't have a handle on people's problems, or are "out of touch" is another favourite. And then we have the pretence, in-keeping with parliamentary norms, that Conservative MPs act in good faith. That they enter into public service to help their communities but are just wrong or misguided in their policies.

Time this was knocked on its head is long overdue.

Consider the evidence. Between 2010 and the Covid outbreak, the Tories oversaw crippling cuts to local authorities, schools, the NHS, social services, the civil service, and social security. As they've swung the axe the number of foodbanks and the people dependent on them have rocketed. In the old job we used to handle the consequences of this week in, week out. People with no money due to getting sanctioned. People with no income because they were deemed fit for work. People having to find extra cash that did not exist to cover the bedroom tax. People having to give back huge sums because the DWP had "overpaid" them. The support we could offer was usually quite limited, and only in a few cases were we able to mitigate what were often horrendous situations. Tory MPs would also have had these issues pouring into their inboxes and mailbags, and encountered the same desperation at constituency surgeries. Replying to this correspondence is the bread and butter of their offices. And yet, despite coming into contact with exactly the same stuff we dealt with, they carried on making life worse for the worst off.

"Ignorance" especially does not wash at senior level. When writing to ministers about social security and/or cuts, the responses would always start with "I can't comment on the specifics of the case", before giving the impression that they were entirely ignorant of the consequences of their policies, or that if such-and-such a constituent got themselves a job everything would be peachy. The always awful Iain Duncan Smith during his time as Dave's welfare supremo was a particularly egregious case, with his standard letters waxing lyrical about what wonders work does for individual wellbeing. But IDS did know about the suffering he was causing. No cabinet member can plead ignorance on this score given the briefing notes and reams of stats shoved their way. They can try and ignore it, but when it catches up with them so does the discomfiture - as one particularly memorable occasion on Question Time when Owen Jones brought IDS face-to-face with what he was doing showed.

And we should turn attention to how the Tories handled the pandemic. The lockdowns and the job retention scheme undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and even more from the disabling consequences of long Covid. Yet the government dithered and delayed, unnecessarily causing avoidable injury and loss of life, and have since enabled infection with the removal of all mitigations, simply because it conflicted with their political priorities. Are we to assume Boris Johnson and friends were ignorant of their drives to normality and repeated disregard of the science, or that they knew but simply did not care - as typified by remarks attributed to the Prime Minister that the bodies should be left to pile high?

This brings us up to date with the two fresh Tory outrages: the dumping of sewerage into the rivers and seas around Britain to the extent they're not safe to swim in, and the energy price spiral. Are we meant to believe Tory MPs, pompously styled as the most sophisticated electorate in the world when their semi-regular leadership contests swing round, haven't got a clue what these mean? Did they think allowing water companies to flood the country's waterways with faeces would have no consequences? That the joke of an energy price cap doesn't spell ruin for millions of people, including those on decent money but manage a fine balance between incomings and outgoings? As Liz Truss affects ambiguity about the energy price crisis, it would do well for naive critics of the Tories to remember that allaying people's worries by coming up with a comprehensive answer that can meet the moment is subordinate to the farce of the leadership contest, and the interests - above all the fossil fuel interests - the Tories happily serve.

To pretend that the Tories don't know what they're doing is to provide them with political cover. As argued here many times, the Conservative Party is a fundamentally dishonest enterprise. Its job is to present the minority interest - of capital and of capitalists - as the universal, popular interest. Every concession of good faith, every criticism voiced that fights shy of the structural underpinnings of the party, its politicians, and its policies, even everything that does not depart the terrain of moral outrage can only ever at best strike a glancing blow. Criticising the Tories has to be about understanding the Tories and what they really are, because without that the challenge of defeating them and ensuring they stay defeated will never be met.

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Friday 26 August 2022

The Energy Price Rise Silence

As promised, Ofgem raised the energy price cap again. From the start of October gas and electricity will have standing daily charges of 28p and 46p respectively. This is up from 3.6p and 14p before prices started galloping away. Per kilowatt hour, that will be 15p and 52p. The average household bill's increasing from £1,971 to £3,549. This is nothing less than a catastrophe. People are going to die while millions face destitution, and tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses are going to close. Public bodies also face a cash flow crisis and without injections of funds will cut jobs to keep afloat, exacerbating unemployment at the worst possible time. Yet on this miserable day we hear nothing from the government.

That's not strictly speaking true. The soon-to-be-ex-chancellor Nadhim Zahawi did the TV rounds this morning telling Britons to conserve energy. In 21st century Britain, wearing woolly jumpers is the official advice to ward against the winter cold. Of our holidaying Prime Minister, we're told that the country should simply lump it. Don't the ingrates of these islands realise the Ukrainians have it so much worse?

And Liz Truss, who is certain to be the next Prime Minister, simply regurgitated everything she's already said on the Tory hustings trail. In a statement put out on Friday morning, the campaign team says,
As prime minister, Liz would ensure people get the support needed to get through these tough times. She will immediately take action to put more money back in people's pockets by cutting taxes and suspending green energy tariffs. This is on top of ongoing work such as the Energy Bills Support Scheme, which will see a £400 discount paid to consumers from October, and the £1,200 package of support for the most vulnerable. Liz will work flat-out to deliver long-term energy affordability and security, unleashing more energy by maximising our North Sea oil and gas production - helping keep bills down in the future.
The statement also said she would not be available for interview at all.

There you have it then. Not so much a case of the Tories being asleep at the wheel while a crisis builds, but one of wilful negligence. If one wanted to chance an uncharitable reading, an argument could be made that this serve some political purposes. With the government about to crash into a huge wall of opposition, letting the crisis anxieties run amok might sap the confidence necessary for collective action. The spectre of mass unemployment is never a friend of rising militancy. For while Tory ineptitude is legion, the one area they've shown a great deal of skill - particularly during the acute phase of the pandemic - is in governance.

But the explanation for saying nothing has a more mundane explanation: the Tories don't know what to do. They are aware the incoming government has to move fast, otherwise the entirety of Truss's time in office will carry the miasma of failure to the next election. But the risks, as they see it, is do too much and their imagined mass audience for Thatcherism would recoil at the "socialism" of their party. It can also raise the horizon of doing things differently, which absolutely must not happen; the Tories have spent the last year wiping away the legacies of Covid and Corbynism. Do too little and the country risks becoming ungovernable. If the mass non-payment of bills takes off, the Tories will be lucky if this is all they have to face off against. According to Alex Wickham's Bloomberg piece, some in the Truss camp want to limit support to the most vulnerable and, of course, pensioners. Others more wise to the politics of the moment would like to see something of the order of the job retention scheme, acutely aware Labour's price freeze has raised the appetite for universal help.

One such scheme that has already been presented to Kwasi Kwarteng, heir presumptive to Number 11, has come from the energy companies themselves. The suggestion is the companies freeze the bills in exchange for a £100bn Treasury loan. This would then be paid back over time by, you guessed it, adding levies to energy bills. The gossip merchants don't say what Kwarteng thinks, but it is a very Tory-sounding scheme. In the end, we still end up paying for the crisis. But the sum involved is enough to make Conservative blood run cold. If this is funded by quantitative easing, the worry is what this would do to inflation. And if it's done through government borrowing, how much does that add to interest payments on state debt? And, politically, it shows that the state can do things - which is the very opposite of where Truss and her baggage wagon want to be.

This is a crisis of the Tories' making. They can blame Putin as much as they like. They're the ones who've gutted the country's gas storage capacity, they are the ones who've cut down on domestic generation because buying from abroad was the easier option, and it is they who constantly claw back public funding for renewables, making sure the UK's dependence on fossil fuels lasts that much longer - with Truss's promised scrapping of the green levy another example of their criminal short-termism. But the nature of the crisis is such that they're quaffing in the last chance saloon. If Truss doesn't come up with something universal, it's not that the Tories just face losing the next election - their long-time decline, temporarily slowed by Brexit and the 2019 election, might accelerate. The cost of living crisis is existential for the Tories too, and it could mark their end as the natural party of government. They can't escape the high stakes either.

Local Council By-Elections August 2022

This month saw 13,988 votes cast in eight local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Three council seats changed hands and another was occupied after it was left uncontested following the last local elections. For comparison with July's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Aug 21

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were two Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of TUSC (71 votes)

August is always a funny month for by-elections. People go on holiday, everyone gets a bit more relaxed, and campaigning winds down. The result is a rush to cram as many by-elections into July or September. 2022 is no exception with just eight to declare. Thankfully, September returns to normal with at least 20 to look forward to But of this month, nothing much can be said about these results. As Labour powers ahead in the national polls, local concerns take over. The Tories drop two seats, Labour one, and the Liberal Democrats make a spectacular gain in Yorkshire and top the popular vote. But the winners this month are the Independents, and why they won are as varied as the candidates who stood themselves.

With the announcement of the almost doubling of the energy price cap today, unless the Tories come up with something comprehensive and universal in short order September's by-elections will resemble a slaughter.

4th August
Luton, Dallow, Lab hold
Shetland, North Isles, Ind gain from Vacant

11th August
Bridgend, Central, Ind gain from Lab
Spelthorne, Laleham & Shepperton Green, Con hold
Wychavon, Dodderhill, Con hold

18th August
Cambridge, Trumpington, LDem hold
Wyre, Preesall, Ind gain from Con

25th August
East Riding of Yorkshire, Beverley Rural, LDem gain from Con

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Thursday 25 August 2022

Emily Maitlis and "BBCism"

As liberalism has been cooing about Emily Maitlis's MacTaggart Lecture all day, some remarks are in order. Titled 'Boiling Frog: Why We Have to Stop Normalising The Absurd', she takes aim at how the BBC and journalism more generally handles impartiality and balance, and how "the populists" have taken advantage of the Fourth Estate's naivete to carve out space in the public's consciousness.

What a load of self-serving drivel.

For over 20 years, the BBC has risen to the challenge of right wing populism ... by enabling it. The two politicians who've done more damage to the progressive consensus as imagined by centrist hacks and establishment politicians - Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson - were indulged and cultivated by the BBC. The ha-ha celebrity enjoyed by Johnson wasn't a question of journalists not knowing how to handle him, but of promoting him on Have I Got News For You as a noted card. Thanks to Question Time, Farage enjoyed the safest seat UKIP ever had. But it was more than the BBC's flagship politics programme at fault; all of its news apparatus promoted him. Partly it was curiosity, a high-minded fascination with a new politics that could easily fill up news schedules that needed filling. Farage's tedious act of saying the unsayable (except for what tabloid editorials had been saying for years) created feedback responses where "fearless" journalism would parrot his talking points to senior Tory and Labour politicians, and they adapted accordingly by shifting right. Too many times the BBC put questions to senior figures UKIP itself was unable to. And getting the BBC treatment meant the doors were open to Farage for further mainstream coverage. If he was good enough for them, he was respectable enough for everything else.

Yes, this was a failure of establishment journalism. They did not hold Farage to account, because he was virtually their ally. Contrary to what Maitlis argues, the dominant interview style in the age of social media is the gotcha. If hacks can get politicians to trip over their words, look foolish, make a gaffe, or let slip an unvarnished opinion or policy, that's what gets clipped and circulated by media outfits. They are incentivised to make their encounters with politicians newsworthy in and of themselves. Because Farage's power was not institutionalised, his arguments - particularly on immigration and, for a while, on same-sex marriage - were repeated by journalists because it helped them hit the gotcha quota. He was challenged on occasion, but this was only a minor part of the coverage he commanded.

But not all populisms are equal. While Farage was flattered, once it was obvious Jeremy Corbyn was going to win the Labour leadership election seven years ago he was treated as an abomination. Maitlis moans about the infamous episode of Newsnight where the graphics team mocked Corbyn up with a Russian-looking hat and a red Muscovy background. She lamented that inviting a Corbyn supporter on later that week to challenge this was a mistake. The populists had played the BBC's naive desire for even handedness. Never mind Newsnight was repeating the sort of nonsense Corbyn copped from the press, and no amount of innocent face protesting alters it. They made Corbyn out to be Voldemort after all, and every time the former Labour leader sneezed BBC journalists were there to cover it. But unlike Farage, there was no de facto alliance of convenience between them. Corbyn and Corbynism was the target.

That's the fundamental difference. Using the talking points of rightist populism assisted career trajectories. Doing so from the left was suicidal. That Maitlis couldn't tell the difference is no surprise. But too late she laments the Tory cuckoo in the BBC nest, naming former Downing Street spinner Robbie Gibb as an "active agent" of the Tory party. Gibb uses his position on the board to act as "as the arbiter of BBC impartiality". What Maitlis finds offensive is "BBCism", the enlightened and aloof viewpoint from which the fraught tussles of politics can be viewed with equanimity, is getting enroached on by the Tories. She refuses to acknowledge, let alone reflect on the biases and political economy underpinning this establishment view. If the state is the committee for governing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie, BBCism is a certain truce among its factions and fractions. A studied neutrality and balance when discussing and covering permitted politics, and a smear machine as scurrilous as any tabloid when the consensus is under pressure.

Holding politicians to account while seeking to inform, educate, and explain, these are the only journalistic ethics worth a damn when it comes to politics coverage. On the occasion the BBC meets these standards, it's more by accident than design. And in her new venture with Jon Sopel, we can expect Maitlis to continue with her shoddy, establishment-friendly output.

General Strikes

Since being involved in politics, I don't think there's ever been a time when the Trades Union Congress has commanded much attention. But this was the situation for a brief time on Tuesday. Its Twitter account declared there was a big announcement coming at 10.30 that evening, and duly from several corners of the internet-travelling left we saw speculation that it was about to call a general strike. The hour of decision struck and ... it was a campaign for a £15/hour minimum wage. A lot of people were disappointed, quite understandably. But how realistic is a general strike call from the TUC, and the prospect of one taking place?

There are three things that have given this legs. Asked by a clueless reporter about whether British workers should hold a general strike, in an interview early on in the rail workers' dispute Mick Lynch said it was a matter for the TUC but the RMT would support one if they called it. In British political culture, it's the done thing for leading trade unionists to be apologetic about strikes and are expected to damp things down. For the best known general secretary in the country to gesture toward wider action breaks with the received industrial consensus, similar to how Jeremy Corbyn broke political wisdom in 2015. Second, because the RMT have had wide publicity, are commanding popular support in the polls, and other groups of workers are either striking (including wildcat action in Amazon), balloting, or threatening to take action, the horizon of the entire labour movement is lifting. Most of the strikes are defensive as bosses look to chop wages and lay staff off, but some notable successes - such as Unite winning big at British Airways, and victory in the long-running bin dispute with Coventry City Council - have had a catalysing effect. The cost of living crisis is also stiffening resolve, as is the continued ineptitude of the Tory party and its leadership candidates' refusal to be drawn on how to tackle energy bills. There's a combination of having one's back against the wall and a growing awareness that collective action can address the problem - because there's no other way.

And then we have social media. This is more than the enthusiasm for Mick Lynch/Eddie Dempsey viral content, but from many thousands of people a desire for a general strike. After two pretty awful years of ruthless attacks by and rearguard skirmishes against the Labour right, the seemingly sudden eruption of strike action has had a galvanising effect. What was previously closed off now seems immediately possible. A focus on a narrow, conventional politics has become immeasurably broadened to the point where Keir Starmer and his equivocations are irrelevant. But as with all things social media, they come with a note of caution. For as long as Twitter has become a thing, so have the warnings about its being an echo chamber. The confluence of the like minded with identarian politics creates recursive universes with their own dynamics and perceptual filters. It's not that the "outside" doesn't impinge, but what does tend to predominate is a preference - and not always a conscious one - for mistaking the intentional community for the wider community. If something has gravity on Twitter, it necessarily reflects attitudes out there. The consequence is often an underestimation of difficulties and an overestimation of opportunity. Acceleration wins over deceleration and patience.

The general strike call is of this character. Wouldn't it be wonderful to see the ruling class quake as the labour movement unleashes its collective power by going out all at once? Yes. Having the last 40 years of retreat wiped out at a stroke is heart stopping stuff. But should isn't could. Consider the extraordinary efforts that have gone into the RMT's action. Activists have had to work hard over decades to ensure militant trade union consciousness is the default setting among its members. The same is true of all the other workers balloting and entering into dispute. Even wildcat actions have years of simmering resentment and activity underpinning spontaneous walk outs. The process of building workers' confidence to win a ballot and strike takes time, and while that process doesn't have a set length and can be longer or shorter, depending on circumstances, it cannot be short circuited.

What of the practicalities of a general strike itself? Returning to the TUC, as an aggregate of the trade union movement as a whole, at best it is a condenser of the general attitude among all affiliated unions. Or, to be more accurate, of the full time apparatuses that run them. And at its worse, the TUC only goes as far as the most conservative bureaucracies allow. And this is because a general strike immediately puts into question who rules. The 1926 General Strike starkly showed how Britain is run by workers (albeit not for workers), but that the TUC general council had no interest in keeping the strike going until dual power was widespread. With the consciousness of trade union leaders structurally at odds with that of the workers, they were able to demobilise before the moment of decision was reached. Famously, the miners were left on their own until starved back to work - a defeat they did not fully recover from until the early 1970s. As recent experience in the Labour Party shows, it's difficult to win if those with significant institutional power have no interest in winning. On the continent, where general strikes are a more regular occurrence, they tend to be strictly time limited - usually only for a day - and are linked to very specific, economistic campaigns and demands. Trade union apparatuses use them as a means of cooling workers off. They are held to try and limit, not expand class consciousness.

To be sure, a one day general strike in this country given the weakness of the labour movement would be a major step forward. But what would it be for, and how to ensure it wouldn't be a damp squib? People won't go on strike against the Tories, and in 1926 the call was obeyed as the TUC called the other unions out in support of the miners. If it's small and barely observed, that only exposes the weakness of the labour movement and would embolden its enemies. It's a recipe for despair and demobilisation, and would severely limit the appetite for further action - as any student of the defeats of the 1980s would tell you. Therefore, despite what several thousand likes and retweets, and a whole day as a trending topic might suggest, the preparation for and the consequences of a general strike is never a light minded affair. It is not the industrial equivalent of calling a demonstration and having good numbers turn up with placards and banners to listen to speakers. It's the heaviest weapon our movement has, and as such takes a lot of time to move and prepare.

The moment is far from ripe for a general strike, but not for industrial action per se. The task for the left now is to push for action wherever we have influence - workers should not be paying for the inflation crisis. We should be building solidarity with striking workers, bridging work forces, and the Enough is Enough campaign offers a way of doing this. And building public support for action, especially the prospect of coordinated action. Right now, getting one's hopes up and calling for a general strike must be tempered by the necessity for the strikes we have now to succeed. If our movement wins, everyone wins. And if they lose, we all lose, and a general strike will remain a fantasy for a good while longer.

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Monday 22 August 2022

What are the Chances of a Snap Election?

Clever-clever posturing or genuine jitters? Pippa Crerar reports that Deborah Mattinson, Keir Starmer's policy guru, has put out a memo advising Labour higher ups that Liz Truss can expect a double-digit bounce from the polls when she's coronated on 5th September. Under these circumstances, she might be tempted to go for a quick election. This is because any uptick in Tory fortunes is likely to be short-lived as a) she has no plan for tackling the cost of living crisis, and b) according to Labour's focus groups, the more they see of her the less they like. If this was a tactical leak to buoy Labour's spirits when Truss doesn't get a 10-12 point bounce, fair enough. But if this is Mattinson's genuine view, it's flying in the face of the evidence.

Not long ago, I suggested Truss poses Labour a threat if she proves herself strategically and tactically flexible. Since those words were written, her performance during the leadership contest has shown her to be anything but. You might argue she's sticking with her low tax plan, if it could be termed thus, to make sure those members' votes pile on up and she'll break with it once ensconced in Number 10. Her problem is that, though there are problems with Labour's price freeze, it has made political weather. Coming up with a more generous scheme is unlikely because of the problems that would pose parliamentary management, and something that doesn't come up to scratch would be an electoral catastrophe of Black Wednesday proportions. In other words, Labour have already nerfed her threat and boxed her into a very difficult position. Truss and her strategists know this, and are unlikely to want this position exposed during an election campaign.

Secondly, it doesn't seem credible to suggest Truss can look forward to a big bounce. In 2015 and 2016 Jeremy Corbyn got no bounce because Labour politicians did a pretty good job of trashing his standing and making out many of his positions were politically illegitimate or too extreme. This framing caught on and he was never able to push through it, even in the aftermath of the 2017 election. A more apposite example might be Boris Johnson in 2019. As a celebrity politician, throughout the contest the Tories more often held their lead over Labour than not because Johnson, as the candidate most likely to win, had Brexit as a cause to rally around. The result wasn't a massive bounce in support. A snap poll by YouGov (26th July) saw a four point increase, widening the Tory lead from six to ten points. Ipsos saw the lead extend from two points on 25th June to ten on 30th July. But it wasn't universal. ComRes reported a one point lead on 25h July, which turned into a one point deficit by the 28th. If the best known Tory in the land couldn't manage an over large and consistent bounce across the pollsters, what chance the more anonymous Truss?

But Truss has not been invisible. Arguably, this has been the most heavily covered Tory leadership contest ever. Ill-fated prime time TV slots and a seemingly endless cycle of hustings variously broadcast by other media outfits have meant a constant drip of news into the press and news bulletins. Everyone who keeps an eye on the news will have an impression of the contest, and know neither candidate have no solutions to pressing difficulties. Among Tory voters, 49% of them prefer Johnson with only 18% going for Truss. Not a vibe the Truss campaign are going to be happy with. Likewise, following Starmer's bill freeze announcement he's pulled eight points clear of Truss, who he trailed by a point a fortnight ago. And the reception for Truss's tax cuts is looking frosty. Where is a poll bounce coming from?

When Truss takes over, she will face a crisis whose depth and scope the Tories would rather pretend doesn't exist. The arrival of 18.6% inflation doesn't care whether they notice or not. What she has said so far has impressed none but the party faithful, but what she does have is a majority of 75. The Tories are divided, but if she brings enough of the ex-Sunak camp into cabinet she could neutralise internal opposition while offering whatever her cost of living plan turns out to be. Politically, with the majority of declared MPs and members in her corner, and under pressure by events no Prime Minister, even if elected by Tory constitutional coup, is going to see that relative stability dashed on rising prices, rising joblessness, and deepening recession. One cannot rule out an early general election entirely, but assuming Truss fancies being in the job for at least a couple of years it would be reckless foolishness for her to risk it.

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Sunday 21 August 2022

The Tory Addiction to Fantasy

According to The Sun, to meet the cost of living crisis the Treasury is mulling over discounts on heating bills by prescription. Present yourself to a GP and they'll certify your impoverished status. Not-at-all coincidentally, Liz Truss is looking at schemes for retaining GPs as thousands are opting for early retirement and, thanks to 12 years of Tory government, not enough new doctors are getting trained to meet demand.

In The Sun write up, which is clearly a kite-flying exercise on behalf of Number 11, the prescription for lower bills would involve either a cash handout from the local council or a voucher. The advantages of the scheme are that it would, apparently, tackle those in need more effectively than a blanket Universal Credit increase. Nor do the Treasury "want to be handing cash bungs to the ultra rich", because millionaires routinely claim social security. It is, obviously, a scheme so absurd that even Tory backbenchers can see it's unworkable. Where are the GPs going to come from who do these assessments? What about the existing NHS backlog? And how is everyone in need going to get themselves to their local surgery?

Not only are the practicalities obviously impractical, the wider politics of targeted help are toxic for the Tories. Up until Partygate and its aftermath did for Boris Johnson, the problems that have bedevilled the government have assumed the appearance of external shocks, not least thanks to expert media management and the happiness of the press to play ball. As such the mismanagement of the pandemic, Covid procurement fraud, the consequences of Johnson's hard Brexit, the NHS crisis, and the shocks the war in Ukraine has had on energy and food prices were never their fault. And so the Tories styled it out. But refusing to do anything or coming up short, when the opposition are more or less united over pushing a bill freeze, means they're courting a great deal of political pain. And even worse, if the Tories decide to means test support there are millions of the (ugh) "just-about-managings" and the better off for whom energy inflation is too much to stomach. They know who'll save them money and who's making them poorer through inaction.

How is it that the Tories have arrived at half-baked and, from the point of view of their survival, dangerous ideas? If it was Number 11 alone floating a daft idea, then think nothing of it. But Liz Truss is full of them. As is Rish! Sunak. The ideas offered are at cross purposes with political realities, and plenty of Tory MPs know it. It's not difficult to fathom why. To greater or lesser extents, all governments suffer from drift. The leading politicians inhabit the rarefied world of the state, the Commons, and the media. Their contact with real people at constituency surgeries is seldom as minions tend to cover them, and their association meetings are disproportionately crammed with the better off, the career-committed, and the blinkered. Becoming absorbed entirely by this world, the stakes of this circumscribed game are often misrecognised as mass electoral preferences. Therefore, Truss and Sunak's tilting toward far right populism and the obsession with tax cuts doesn't just chime with the elite interests feeding through the Tory party, it's also thanks to a genuine misrecogntion and misreading of the moment. This miscrecognition, however, is not a foible. It's structural, a property of the bourgeois political culture they inhabit. For example, when Truss got bodied over regional public sector pay she u-turned pretty sharpish but she carries on with her anti-tax, anti-green leadership campaign almost as if Britain isn't gripped by systemic crisis. The longer a party is in government, the greater its estrangement from the political real. Fantasy increasingly becomes all, and the Tories are providing ample evidence for yet another case study.

What this means is when Truss wins, for surely she must, it will turn out the schemes she has paraded in front of Tory party members weren't just for their consumption. Having stood on a right wing programme that can only exacerbate our malaise, she will be expected to see it through by her parliamentary support. And that means more hard encounters with opinion polls, more widespread resistance and, undoubtedly, a government constantly forced into retreat and disarray. The road forward is clear. Unless Truss about turns and comes up with a universal, generous plan to meet the crisis, the propensity for wacky schemes will soon manifest. And shortly after that, electoral doom will start rising on the Tory horizon.

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