Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Losing Members is Bad, Actually

The collapse of Labour's membership from 523,000 to 432,000 between the end of 2020 and end of 2021 is good news. Our helpfully blunt friend Luke Akehurst said he was very happy with this state of affairs. With the party's cash deficit slumping from £1m to £5m over this period and with £3.1m of that loss explained by falling subscriptions, this apparently is a price worth paying for seeing the back end of "100,000 Corbynites". Their contributions "didn't balance out the political damage they were doing." Akehurst knows a thing or two about political damage. He predicted Jeremy Corbyn would lead the Labour Party into electoral disaster - and his faction did everything in their power to make sure it happened.

But I'm not interested in debating with cynics. They've demonstrated their priorities enough times. What I will take issue with is their celebration of a shrinking membership. Through a rightist factional prism, seeing their opposition leave the party makes it easier to win those internal elections and get their people selected for the right seats. Branch and constituency meetings are becalmed oases where the CLP bores can hold forth on bin bags and dog shit, while the careerists and wannabes blow smoke up the MP's arse. Politics proper is exiled to the pub afterwards. Having got their hearts' desires, is this worth it from a Starmer-loyal point of view?

There's the obvious consequence of losing money. The party went through a painful shredding of full-time jobs over the last year, including the junking of the community unit because a) they were "lefties" and b) don't understand (nor want to understand) how consistent campaigning on local issues now reaps electoral benefits later. With fewer people, long-term work becomes harder. It also means Labour has less money for by-election campaigns, and publicity drives for big policy announcements. Such as the recent bill freeze. What does this matter if Starmer can attract wealthy backers? There's little evidence of doing so, and even then their "gifts" (which invariably come with understandings attached) are not as regularised and predictable as members' subscriptions. There's a reason why the last time Labour did this it was perpetually broke. This also leaves the party open to an obvious political attack. For all the bowing and scraping to big business, the fact Labour is running a huge deficit can and will be used by the Tories and the press to attack Starmer as fiscally imprudent and an unsafe pair of hands.

And there is voting. 100,000 is a not inconsiderable number of people. Not because of their weight set against an electorate of 30 million or thereabouts, but because of their experience and networks. One of the main reasons why Labour did better than anyone expected in 2017, and why 2019 could have been much worse is because the huge party membership was an electoral factor in and of itself. Scores of thousands were making the case for Labour every day at work, down the retirement home, at the school gates, in the coffee shop. The party reached the point where virtually every family or social circle in the country had a member, or knew a supporter first hand. That level of embeddedness is what knits together seemingly spontaneous (and unexpected) support. Starmer could have chosen to cultivate these networks simply by not witch-hunting members and publicly dumping his pledges.

The polls report Labour ahead with healthy leads in the so-called red wall. What's the problem? Doesn't this show no one cares about their grievances and their reach is negligible - especially when the Tories are doing a good job of making Labour look better with every passing day? No one should pretend the next election is going to be a cakewalk. For all the times glassy-eyed shadcab members go on telly to say the party has a mountain to climb before winning office, Starmer and his helpers are acting as if it's in the bag. The electoral strategy the Tories are likely to pursue will be an attempted repeat of 2017 and 2019: get together the older, the retired, and the propertied on a culture war campaign reminiscent of Brexit and hope it's going to be enough. It's not a "centre ground" strategy, but one feeding off the polarisation the Tories have done more than anyone to bring about. To win, Labour has no choice but to mobilise and politically monopolise the other side of this equation instead of focusing its energies on Tory supporting pensioners. Every vote counts, especially under the new voter ID system and the new boundaries the Tories have gerrymandered.

Even with the stark polarisation of the cost of living crisis, there's no sign Starmer understands this. Chances are the Tories will move further to shield their base from the worst of it, and with a new face in Number 10 there's the opportunity for reinvention. By driving out the left, Starmer and the Labour right are decomposing the coalition they need to win. A hundred thousand actively using their networks to urge votes for alternatives, like the Greens, or suggesting people should stay at home instead. This could easily be enough to lose tight marginals, and with Boris Johnson gone there's no guarantee the effects of antipathy would be overridden by tactical voting.

Losing so many left wing members isn't a boon for Starmer, but entirely avoidable and potentially a disaster in the making.

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Monday, 15 August 2022

Starmerism Vs Nationalisation

Has the internet got room for one more take on Keir Starmer's energy bill announcement? In case you've been asleep or nowhere near news media for a couple of days, on Sunday night the papers splashed with the centrepiece of Labour's effort to get energy bills under control: freeze them. The policy, which will cost £29bn and caps bills at £1,971 from October to March. It would cancel the £400 payment Rish! Sunak is giving to everyone, though not the boosted payments going to the poorest households, and there would be no means testing. Rightly the bills will be frozen for everyone. And Starmer reiterates, as per last week's pre-payment announcement, that this is part of a package with insulation, community generation, and renewables in the mix.

If Starmer's price cap sounds familiar, it's because it is. Ed Davey announced a near identical policy last week. And in turn, that's very similar to the SNP position on bills. Interesting that the main opposition parties all share the same policy. But there are problems. Firstly, £1,971 is already unaffordable for millions on low incomes and even the retention of Sunak's targeted help plus Labour's meter tariff pledge would still leave them out of pocket. Second, as was entirely obvious, Starmer sidestepped nationalisation. Pressed on BBC Breakfast, he said freezing bills is a better way of immediately helping people than compensating shareholders for the confiscation of their assets. Starmer certainly isn't dim enough to not know this is exactly what he wants to do. Therefore, nationalisation - raised by Gordon Brown, of all people - is off the table.

For someone at pains to distance himself from anything resembling a new social democratic settlement, Starmer's going to have problems when March comes around and bills remain at unsustainably high levels. £29bn has to be conjured up by Labour's number crunchers again, and then presumably again when that half-year has elapsed. Not the sort of prudent financial management he wants Labour to be known for especially in the lead-up to an election. Why not simply nationalise the energy supply at the market figure of £58bn? The case for is persuasive. The chief advantage would be a permanent government subsidy that could keep bills low without having money getting creamed off to shareholders. It would allow for more efficiencies instead of the hapless, fractured energy market we have presently, and allow for more seamless planning when it comes to renewables, carbon capture and storage, battery construction, and the decentralisation of energy generation. It would also be politically popular; two thirds support the utilities (and Royal Mail) being entirely in the public sector. And as argued previously, punitive nationalisations would be a smart populist move.

Except Starmer does have a point. Nationalisation in and of itself would not reduce wholesale prices. Taking energy into state ownership on market value means shelling out £58bn (though this could be done for nothing by replacing shares with gilts, for instance) and then subsidising bills - a huge sum. Therefore nationalisation isn't a magic bullet, and those who want to see it should not pretend otherwise. The costs of gas, oil, and coal are only going to increase in the short term - but this is precisely why nationalisation is necessary. First to shield people from exorbitant bills in the here and now, and second to use energy generation policy and state control of the network to transition to low cost alternatives as quickly as possible. Something that the current regimen and its primary concern with profiteering does not have an incentive to do. The left have to be clear that this is why nationalisation is necessary, because it's the only way that enables us to do what needs to be done: transitioning away from fossil fuels to their alternatives.

This would be the "tough choice", so naturally Starmer ducks it and goes for the headline pleasing option. But is that all there is to it? In the clever-clever land of Labour policy generation, there are two reasons why, to them, this is preferable to nationalisation. As Starmer said in his interview, it's immediate help that will benefit everyone and is "fully costed". In a political culture where having to explain a policy means you've already lost the argument, nationalisation requires making additional, complex arguments that the Tories and their press would happily pick apart. This is their take home from two crucial 2019 elections: our own, and what happened in Australia. A bill freeze is easy to understand and has maximal cut through. No complicated arguments to think about.

The second is the policy's "wedginess". I.e. Driving a wedge between the Tories and their voter coalition. For the LOTO high foreheads, nationalisation is "typical Labour" and would not positively catch their attention, whereas a freeze would versus what the Tories are currently offering. For them, getting drawn into a debate between Liz Truss's tax cuts versus nationalisation is overly ideological in ways tax cuts versus frozen bills does not. The latter can be judged by who's offering the most - Truss with her couple of hundred quid, or Labour who can make most energy worries disappear overnight. And because the Tories will be forced to act as the strength of extra-parliamentary opposition grows daily, in all likelihood Truss will be forced to offer a variation on the price freeze - allowing Starmer to scoop the props for forcing the government to adopt his policy.

This isn't just about point-scoring politics for Starmer. He and most of the figures in his shadow cabinet, including (especially) the shadow chancellor would only ever countenance nationalisation as a last resort, and even then it's so taboo they can't speak about it. But their reticence is ultimately a position staked in elite politics. As with so many things, Starmerism has never stopped debasing itself before capital and property rights. Even in the direst emergency, one that could lead to a very hot autumn indeed, Starmer and friends have to assure the institutional investors and big capital that they will be, like Tony Blair before them, Labour in name only and make no inroads into private property. They are committed to keeping ownership as an issue outside of permitted politics.

In all Starmer has won the day among the media, which makes it more difficult for him to get outflanked by the Tories. But this is the subordination of the general interest, our class interest, to electoral politicking. We have to keep making the case for nationalisation and a transformative programme because, again, the Labour leadership have demonstrated they're not going to do it for us.

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Saturday, 13 August 2022

Is Enough is Enough Enough?

I can understand why some comrades are less than enthused about the launch of Enough is Enough, the campaign coincident with Don't Pay UK. Among its first initiatives is a a letter to the government telling them to get their fingers out and treat the cost of living crisis like the emergency it is. And then we have a programme of rallies, kicking off in London this Wednesday. And apart from an active and fast-growing social media presence, that's it. For comrades who've been around the block and have had a dose of initiativeitis more than once, it's not very inspiring.

This reminds me of the launch of the People's Assembly in June 2013. There were rallies, there were demonstrations, and as well as having the usual leftist suspects on board mainstream trade unions were signed up. If memory serves, the TUC's Frances O'Grady either spoke at the launch rally or at the London demonstration. My politics at that point were quite melty, but the cynical eye cast over the project were a pretty accurate forecast. A series of set pieces and activism for activism's sake, but nothing more than that. However, I was wrong as well. The People's Assembly did not achieve take off, but what it did was build links between activists in various anti-cuts campaigns and trade unionists, and undoubtedly these networks fed into the Corbyn insurgency two years later - as Alex Nunns argued in The Candidate.

I think the similarities between the People's Assembly and Enough is Enough are superficial in character. Yes, it has been organised "from above" and presented to the left and the labour movement as a fait accompli. Though it's perhaps worth noting the "usual suspects" are conspicuous by their absence. Mick Lynch, currently the country's best known trade unionist, is effectively the figurehead. Reflecting the RMT's pre-eminence in the rail strikes, and his ubiquity on the media rounds, Eddie Dempsey is there too. Zarah Sultana speaks for left wing Labour MPs (no John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, or Jeremy Corbyn), and lastly the CWU's Dave Ward finishes the speakers' roster - undoubtedly thanks to BT Openreach workers taking action for the first time in 30 years, and with a postal strike extremely likely. The CWU is on the list of sponsors, along with Tribune, the Right to Food campaign, and the community union, Acorn.

Different people, same set up? Why might this be any different to what went before? There are several reasons, the most obvious being the political context has entirely shifted. Despite the defeat of Corbynism at the 2019 general election and Keir Starmer's mopping up operation in the Labour Party afterwards, the left as a whole is stronger, more rooted, more experienced, and has many more active participants than was the case a decade ago. Second, the People's Assembly was founded not just when the left and labour movement were weak, but when there was significant support for public sector cuts. The Tories successfully spun the 2008 crash as a crisis of state finances, and at the time Labour fell over themselves to support rather than contest this analysis. If all the official organs of state and the media are putting out the same line, an awful lot of people are going to swallow it. Today, I don't need to say much about today. The energy crisis, the NHS crisis, the economic crisis, the drought and climate crisis, the crisis of state capability, the crisis of the union, and the paralysis of official politics are doing their own work. A wave of industrial struggle not seen since the 1980s with significant public backing, growing support for strategic nationalisations, and as reported on Friday, some polling suggesting large numbers think rioting in the streets would be justified. With millions driven to breaking point, acute distress is finding expressions in sympathy and, as the strikes show, collective action.

Enough is Enough might be able to cohere the despair and convert it into an anger that can mobilise. But it has to become known, which is why the programme of localised rallies are useful. It provides an impetus for people to come together, start planning their own actions, and building a camaraderie - something Corbynism well understood. But again, the difference now is the much wider audience receptive to its message. It's populist in terms of setting up an us and them dynamic, its demands a commonsensical and punitive (where the rich are concerned) politics while steering clear of party labels, and is non-prescriptive. It's down to the local groups to determine what their priorities are, which might range from picket line solidarity, mobilisations against bailiffs (especially important if Don't Pay UK meets its million non-payer goal), through to mutual aid, targeted actions, and so on.

None of this is guaranteed, but we do know the confluence of crises aren't going to let up, nor will the resistance to them. Enough is Enough can give fighting back some coherence and, crucially, integrate layers of striking workers and the newly politicised into left and labour movement politics. Is Enough is Enough enough? No, obviously not. It's a beginning and won't ever stop being a work in progress, albeit one that could really into and catalyse the febrile mood. For this reason comrades should set aside their justifiable cynicism and get involved with their local groups.

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Friday, 12 August 2022

Labour's Energy Bill Farce

Last week, Rachel Reeves announced Labour's first measure to tackle the cost of living crisis and address spiralling fuel bills: cutting VAT on energy. You'll note not abolishing it, which is what Rish! Sunak has suggested, but reducing the percentage of the carge that heads back to the Treasry. A couple of hundred quid saved as the direct debits shoot up by thousands? Thanks Labour! A week on and several painful television interviews where shadow cabinet members can't bring themselves to say Keir Starmer hasn't done the rounds because he's on holiday, Reeves struck again last night with another policy.

She announced that Labour would outlaw the higher tariffs charged by pre-payment meters. Naturally, this appearing hours after my suggesting it is complete coincidence. Though in truth, props should go to Dawn Butler who argued for it and got it adopted by Labour in 2016. In other words, the shadow chancellor has plagiarised already-existing policy. Though Reeves wouldn't be Reeves if she didn't give this welcome measure a weak-ass twist.

The harmonisation of pre-payment and direct debit bills would see energy companies compensated by the government via fixes to the windfall levy (introduced by Sunak at Labour's urging). This would cost £113m between October and March, while saving those on meters, who are overwhelmingly people on low incomes, £184 over the period. This truly is pitiful. For one, why should energy companies receive monies to make up for the loss? E:On, for example, announced profits of £1.2bn this week. For too long, the big six have enjoyed surplus profits by forcing their poorest customers onto pre-payment. Having hammered them for years, Labour should explicitly position this as a punitive measure. If Reeves thinks it's "outrageous", and "unjustifiable and morally wrong", why give them anything in return for ending an overly exploitative practice? I think everyone reading this knows the answer.

In and of itself saving households £184 in the context of a £2,500 price rise since this time last year with possibly another £1,300 rise in January to look forward to is insulting. But to be fair, this is one proposal among many Reeves has supposedly been working on with Ed Miliband and Starmer. But why announce this now as some kind of teaser trailer for a blockbuster destined never to arrive? I suppose the thinking of the professional politics brains at HQ is trotting out one policy after another gives it some publicity when Liz Truss has taken a Trappist vow when it comes to tackling energy bills. The problem with this clever-clever approach to the news cycle is people will look and see it for the pathetic effort it is. The Tories are keeping mum, and what Labour is saying is no one in the shadow cabinet truly grasps the seriousness of the crisis. Nor, for that matter, cares.

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Thursday, 11 August 2022

Masturbation is Not an Ethnographic Method

Masturbation as a research tool. Really? Karl Andersson makes the case in the Qualitative Research journal. His piece, which argues that masturbation is a form of method acting, of entering the mindset of the subculture he's studying, allows for a deeper, more embodied way of grasping the subject matter than the standard methods of interviewing, observing, and immersing oneself in their output. He argues that there's a (subterranean) tradition of academic having had intimate relations with the people they've researched in the past, so is this any different? Unsurprisingly, this caught the attention of the Daily Mail back in April, and Tory MP Neil O'Brien weighed in, using it as foil for an ignorant attack on social scientific and humanities research generally. "The non-STEM side of higher education is just much too big, producing too much that is not socially useful", he crowed.

On this occasion, however, O'Brien has a point about this article. It's not that the author was writing "about his experiences masturbating to Japanese porn", it's what this pornographic content is. Andersson is undertaking a PhD examining shota culture, which is a subset of "erotic comics" whose content deals with young boy characters in sexually explicit scenarios. For "research", Andersson masturbated exclusively to this material for three months to help enter the subcultural mindset. After each session he wrote up his impressions as field notes, with the material presented in the article more a commentary on his enjoyment than reflections on them. These raise several questions.

Firstly, how the hell did this get published in a prestigious methods journal? Where were the editors' moral compasses and their common sense? As a contribution to understanding paedophilic subcultures, which is worthwhile only when it is bound up with an ethic of prevention and cure, this piece offers nothing. Andersson suggests his piece is about "combatting loneliness", which seems to boil down to the fact other people enjoy this sort of content and therefore that knowledge helps overcome it - while imparting a frisson of eroticism. What a load of rubbish.

Second, it's a complete ethical failure on the part of the supervisory staff to not only allow this PhD to go ahead, but for Manchester University to fund it directly from their pot of money. This is not disinterested research: Andersson was the editor and publisher of explicit "arts" magazines that promoted the sexualisation of young boys and under-age teenagers. He said paedophilia was "far away" from the discussion of his publications, which by any sort of conventional or social scientific definition is obviously untrue. And yet here we have someone undertaking a PhD to, it seems, sate his particular proclivities. Why didn't this set the alarm bells ringing?

Going back to Bourdieu, he was very clear that all of us occupy intersections of power and struggle. Over the course of our lives, we cultivate stakes and interests in particular social fields - though often we're not fully conscious of this, nor of how the assumptions underpinning the rules of those fields condition and are assimilated into our spontaneous outlook. Anyone undertaking a social investigation will likely import those biases into the research and, by accident or design, distort their representation of the research object and the claims they make about it. Bourdieu's argument is any investigator must, as a scientific precondition, apply a sociological analysis to the coordinates they occupy in social space. A sociology of one's own sociology, if you like. This would highlight the systemic social advantages one has, the power that the researcher acquires over the researched, and crucially the material interests they have in the completion of this research. This reflexive practice does not eliminate bias, but by accounting for the stakes one has in a project a researcher is committing an act of sociological honesty and therefore enhances the scientific bona fides of their work. It is situated as an intervention in a claims-making body of scholarship, and if there are any distortions their lineage is visible.

This very basic methodological precaution is entirely absent from the article. It even states at the bottom that there are no conflicts of interest! Andersson says his research is about "desire and identity", a laudable and fascinating area of research - albeit one that has to be handled with sensitivity and where safeguarding and the understanding of vulnerabilities are necessities. But by adopting a position of faux objectivity in which his own sexual and material interests do not figure, this is nothing but a prurient exclamation of his socially unacceptable tastes, alibied by some light theory and academic poetry. This is the unacknowledged promotion of a legally dubious subculture, not edgy methodology that shows how hung up everyone is about sexuality. Second, it's obvious from this trash article that masturbation offers no insights - except into the tastes and the mind of the author.

Qualitative Research are undertaking an investigation, and the University of Manchester is also looking into the project. That such a thing could have got through the research and ethics committees suggest something is very wrong with their processes and procedures. But is not just the grotesque subject matter that stings, it's the complete reputational and political cluelessness on show. When the social sciences and humanities are under attack, taking on someone into abusive "art" to "investigate" paedophilic mangas is tone deafness of the most stupid, morally vacuous, and damaging kind.

The Inconvenient Gordon Brown

History will probably record that Gordon Brown's decisive action in nationalising the British banking sector and recapitalising the banks gave global capital with an immediate route out of the 2008 stock market crisis and prevented a recession from becoming a depression. That it put rocket boosters under asset price inflation and therefore contributed to our present malaise is something latter day admirers say less about, though having his premiership was cut short by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition means he cannot be held fully responsible for this. Dave and Osborne chose not to tackle the issue because it suited Tory electoral interests. But then again, neither did Brown before the sub-prime implosion raised the spectre of 1930s retread.

Nevertheless, as bourgeois politics goes, Brown is good in a crisis because he was good in a crisis. And now we stand at the crossroads of an economic and a political crisis, what Tony Blair affectionately dubbed the great clunking fist is grasping the moment by the jugular. Brown argues for immediate action. An extension of the windfall tax on bumper energy profits before monies are repatriated to foreign owners, and the uprating of Universal Credit now (by an unspecified amount) to meet the October energy price rise. For good measure he throws in a tax on City bonuses, and the closure of loopholes in Rish! Sunak's windfall levy. These measures, Brown reckons, could raise £15bn - enough to give the poorest just under £2,000 per household. Brown also backs it up with the sort of ethical argument entirely missing from Keir Starmer's prospectus: that people have a right to heating, and energy companies should not be profiting from a crisis.

Brown goes on to say he would prefer businesses work with government in holding prices down, and he also calls for a flat rate of pay settlements of between £2,000-£3,000 to stop people from going to the wall while the state doesn't pick up all of the tab. He goes on,
And if the companies cannot meet these new requirements, we should consider all the options we used with the banks in 2009: guaranteed loans, equity financing and, if this fails, as a last resort, operate their essential services from the public sector until the crisis is over.
In other words, temporary nationalisation. And it has struck a chord. 50,000 people have signed a petition within hours of Brown's views being aired, and he's even received unlikely backing from right wing commentators. But what of the policy itself? The Brown plan is preferable to what Ed Davey is touting on behalf of the Lib Dems. He suggests expanding the windfall tax to cover oil companies as well, which could raise some £20bn. This would, with an additional £16bn summoned up from somewhere, then be used to cancel the price rises for all households, leaving the energy bills as they were in April - £1,971/year. There are a couple of problems. The first is this doesn't challenge the pricing mechanism, whereas Brown does. And second, the Davey scheme is conceived as a one off. If the state is going to do a furlough-for-energy-bills to the tune of £36bn this year, what about next year? It seems more logical to nationalise the whole kit and caboodle at their present collective value of £58bn than shelling out that money more than once. And this is without noting that the state gets to determine how much it's willing to compensate share holders for.

But what about nationalisation itself? One doesn't have to sneer to note global wholesale prices aren't going to pay much attention to the nationalisation of energy supply in Britain. Which is why Brown emphasises a package of alternative measures first, while dangling state ownership as a threat to enforce compliance. He is not pretending it's a solution in itself. And, if the last two Labour manifestos are anything to go by, the left would agree. Except that nationalisation is the necessary accompaniment to a range of market intervention measures. One at the top of any list would be the harmonisation of meter and standard tariffs, so the poor are not paying over the odds for electricity. It would allow for infrastructure upgrades, storage capacity, and new energy sources to be brought on stream in a coordinated way. And even better nationalisation is electorally popular. This isn't just because most people think it's a good idea, taking energy out of private ownership gives a good kicking to businesses who are widely despised because they monopolise a necessity and are profiteering off the misery of others.

Labour being Labour, Starmer and his coterie want to be nowhere near this. Brown's suggestions, that are well within the confines of permissible politics, are a step too far. As Jessica Elgot observes, this is not kite flying on behalf of the Labour leadership; these are Brown's suggestions alone. A point reinforced by Steve Reed this morning, in which nationalisation is ruled out. If this is the case, it's difficult to see where Starmer can go on tackling the crisis. With his cost of living speech moved forward to Friday, the coordinates of the big reveal must lie between Sunak's idea of ditching VAT on fuel (which is better than Rachel Reeves's current policy, which only shaves off a fraction of VAT) and Davey's discounted bills. That means it's not in the running before it's even left the gate.

The problem Starmer has is moments like this cannot have a quietest response. Not just because radical action is needed, but because the costs of not doing so are politically prohibitive. Right now Don't Pay UK has signed up a hundred thousand pledges to cancel their energy direct debits, and the union-backed Enough is Enough is galvanising have a quarter of million backing the campaign. An opposition is mobilising, and the Labour leadership are making themselves at best an irrelevance, at worst an obstacle to this movement. And as this will be the number one issue that Liz Truss has to deal with when the Tory leadership contest concludes, she could choose to outflank Labour. Conservatism in this country never got anywhere by being inflexible.

Therefore, Gordon Brown's intervention is inconvenient because he's produced a yardstick by which Starmer's plan will be measured. But that itself does not go far enough. If Starmer can't at the very least match what Brown has proposed, he might as well concede the next election to the incoming Prime Minister now.

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Tuesday, 9 August 2022

On Don't Pay UK

Another day, another estimate of the energy price cap getting revised upwards. Standing at £3,582 this coming October, by January we'll be at £4,266/year. This is more than a year's worth of Universal Credit payments, incidentally. And for millions of people it's a recipe for destitution. Meanwhile, the Conservative leadership contenders are acting as if their universal £400 payment is cushion enough for the hammering that's coming, and the inestimable Liz Truss has made it clear there are not going to be any handouts. Her programme of tax cuts and cancellation of the National Insurance rise will magically grant the public bulging pockets, enough to easily absorb the bills. Characteristically, with a crisis dominating the news Keir Starmer is nowhere to be seen (he's on holiday, just like the Prime Minister and the Chancellor) and what's on offer is small beer - though rumour has it Starmer and Rachel Reeves are working on something that meets the moment. Will it match or exceed the Liberal Democrat plan of using VAT receipts and extending the windfall tax to shield people from the price rises? I doubt it.

Sitting tight and hoping for the government and opposition to come up with a workable solution will turn out to be another Waiting for Godot situation. When official politics is paralysed, it falls to others outside of the Westminster circus to take matters into their hands. Monday saw the launch of the Enough is Enough campaign, itself an expression of the growing confidence of the newly insurgent trade union movement. Within hours the website was knocked offline by heavy traffic, and in a day the campaign video knocked up almost four million views. That suggests more than a couple of thousand lefties watching Mick Lynch and friends on endless loops. It has what the self-identified insiders like to call "cut through".

This could cause the Tories significant problems in the long run, especially when it comes to shifting public opinion. But more immediately the establishment are affecting a lot of concern about Don't Pay UK, the campaign that has seemingly sprung from nowhere and is looking to get a million people to cancel their energy direct debits on 1st October if the price hike isn't cancelled. This is not some leftist initiative either - I first came across tell of the campaign three or four weeks ago on Conservative Home, where it got a sympathetic hearing from some Tory supporters. Presently, 95,000 have signed the pledge and 30,000 are registered as activists. It's also obvious DPUK is pulling in masses of people from all over the place, as per this Graun piece. And, more importantly, is making the establishment start to sweat. They know it could really take off and repeat the Poll Tax moment.

The boss of Ofgem is pleading with bill payers not to boycott payments. Pretending to be worried about the vulnerable, CEO Jonathan Brearley said non-payment would put up the prices for everyone and get people into more trouble. The debt charity Stepchange said money owed will simply stack up and the bailiffs could be sent round. There are risks to credit ratings and access to finance. Putting a Tory spin on the case against non-payment, CapX rides to the rescue to defend poor energy companies from a beastly monstering. These naive fools, laughs the author, don't they know these firms have tiny profit margins and it's state interference in energy markets that are to blame?

These objections all assume DPUK is "preying" on people who don't know their own minds. What they cannot grasp is credit ratings and future mortgages are irrelevant to millions of people having to choose between food and warmth, and that keeping kids fed comes before realising shareholder value for the Big Six. Nor do they have much sense that a million non-payers can't be dragged through the courts, have the debt collectors sent round, and other strong arm tactics applied. We are many and they are few, to coin a phrase. The idea a boycott would drive up prices is risible scare mongering trying to drive a wedge between the won't-pays-because-can't-pay and those who do cough up the readies. In all likelihood further increases to costs would only succeed in creating more non-payers, and widen the gulf between the government and the public. Because let there be no doubt, neither a Truss or Sunak administration are going to do anything but stand four square with the energy companies. A gas and/or electricity contract is, formally, a private arrangement between a service provider and a customer with the latter paying for goods received, but this isn't a Netflix subscription: it's a necessity. The energy market we have now came about through political decisions. The Tories decided to privatise the utilities, the Blairites were evangelists for global energy markets, and the Tories again are pivoting more toward dependence on fossil fuels, downgrading renewables and, famously, exposing the country to price fluctuations by gutting gas storage capacity. Energy bills are a public matter, and are ripe for direct action.

It's obvious the Tories won't have an answer to energy bills apart from "pay them", and if past performance is any indicator neither will Starmer's "opposition". That leaves us with a very hot Autumn of trade union action and a mass non-payment campaign to look forward to. Something's going to have to give and, with millions of people inching toward political activity of some description, my money's not on the Tories being able to weather this crisis without conceding a great deal.

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Sunday, 7 August 2022

Iceland Volcano August 2022

When most education establishments were shut in Spring 2021, I got a little bit obsessed with something: the Fagradalsfjall eruption in Iceland. I found it soothing watching the volcano build itself up from small spatter cones to a lava geyser to a meaty shield volcano. And then it died just at the end of the summer just as the new term started and we all headed back to the coalface. Almost a year on, and just a stone's throw from where the old monster sleeps the ground has opened and magma has gushed out again. This time, the new eruption is pumping out three to four times more cubic metres of molten rock than last year's eruption and is threatening to fill the valleys its predecessor started working on. The site is about 20 miles from Reykjavik, is relatively remote, and chances are as the lava makes its way toward the sea it will give locals' homes a miss. The highway that wraps around the Icelandic coast? Probably not so lucky.

Anyway, here's some drone footage from a regular at this eruption and the last. It is absolutely stunning.


Saturday, 6 August 2022

How Liz Truss Threatens Labour

How worried should Labour be about Liz Truss? This is the question former Blair aide John McTernan has asked, and his answer is quite a bit. He thinks strength of character counts in her favour. The journey from pint-sized peacenik through the Liberal Democrats, the bowels of Tory local government, and then from Remain to Leave is, he believes, something the punters can connect with. It makes her look more human. He also argues this means Truss knows how to connect with progressively-minded people as she was once there herself. Her brand of plain speaking is waffle free and "authentic". Truss also has a set of populist-sounding policies. People need cash? Give them tax cuts. Education failing? Build grammar schools so bright pupils can get on, in a manner of speaking. And like Boris Johnson, and to a degree his two predecessors, a bit of anti-elitism is appealing. As the Rish! Sunak campaign are finding out to their cost.

Labour should definitely take Truss very seriously. Keir Starmer can't rely on Truss's gaff magnet to sink her premiership, especially when he's prone to stepping on rakes (the mishandled picket line farce being another example of his clod-hopping leadership), but in my view John's right for the wrong reasons. For one, a lot of senior Labour people put great store in authenticity. Having gone straight from university (usually Oxbridge) into some wonkish non-job and then gifted a parliamentary seat, it's easy to understand why many benefiting from this route to the top feel their rootlessness keenly. Embarrassingly, Keir Starmer often talks about his mum and dad (and occasionally his care worker sister) to burnish his plebeian creds. Our friend Wes Streeting is another example - be prepared to hear about growing up with mum in a council flat many times before his political career ends. But this fetishism of authenticity is complete nonsense. People don't particularly care about politicians' backgrounds. If wealth was a handicap, Sunak would not be a front rank Tory and Jacob Rees-Mogg would be idling at home instead of reposing on the green benches. Relatability is much more important.

Let's consider Truss again. I don't think she comes across as warm or sympathetic, let alone "fun" as per her Tory character references. But like all successful right wingers she has cultivated a "truth telling" persona. She will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. It's not for nothing that all of her TV debate appearances has her repeating "I know what a woman is" - the Truss version of "it's not racist to talk about immigration." It says here's someone unafraid of ruffling feathers and defying the you're-not-allowed-to-say-that brigade. None of this is true, of course. The one service Sunak's doomed leadership bid is performing is the relentless exposure of how Truss's campaign centres on telling Tory members what they want to hear. Even if her relatability is entirely contrived, in tone and countenance she is better than Starmer and most of the shadow front bench. She hasn't had the Labour media training that makes its politicians sound like they're reading off a script, and has them coming across as robotic, patronising, and nasally insincere.

Truss is aware that her patter isn't coiffured, though this is more of an asset than she supposes. But this is marginal to her appeal. Her semi-official slogan is delivery, delivery, delivery, and she bangs on about the problems she's overcome, the trade deals she's signed, and "standing up to Putin" - an easy job when the Ukrainian army is doing that for you. She's served up the goods as far as the party members are concerned. Sunak, on the other hand, has gone from dishing up the noms with Eat Out to Help Out to cooking an unpalatable main course of tax rises and "socialism". Therefore, it's deeds not words where the electorate will be paying attention. As John notes, reversing the National Insurance increase and cutting the Green Levy puts money into people's pockets. It is not much set against the pain to come, but sets up Truss's government for more intervention and makes it look active. Like all Tories, she is going to try and do as little as possible for as long as possible, but if the politics demands it her delivery mantra could encompass severe regulation, if not outright nationalisation of the energy companies. It would be caveated as a temporary measure and I doubt it would return bills to where they were this time last year, but a move like this is decisive, popular, and would force some put off by Boris Johnson to reassess their relationship to the Tories.

This is the danger for Labour and Starmer's leadership. With a shadow chancellor firmly in hock to Treasury orthodoxy, and therefore City interests, Rachel Reeves's pathetic marginal cut in VAT on fuel is weaker than anything Truss is presently offering. If Starmer is serious about winning an election, and long time readers know I have my doubts, a repeat performance of his non-opposition during the acute phase of the pandemic will not wash. John advises, "... Attack the new Prime Minister and her government, but don’t nit-pick. The critique must be based on a vision of hope and a positive project ...". If delivery is her watch word, then Labour must have a better plan to counter it. Yes, that means nationalising energy and imposing price controls - no shilly-shallying with wonkish dithering and tinkering. The moment demands Labour steps up to the plate, and if it does people will listen and the chances of winning in two years moves further up the probability scale.

If John, the Blairite's Blairite is pushing this, and Gordon Brown is likewise agitating for firm action, Starmer's going to have to grasp the nettle. If he doesn't, Truss's Tories are on course for stomping Labour for the fifth time in a row.

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Inflation and Political Paralysis

Ofgem has changed the rules so the price cap can "update" on a quarterly basis, with a projected average bill to be around £3,600 from October. Inflation is forecast to hit 13%. The Bank of England has put interest rates up to 1.75% and says we have a recession to look forward to as well. But don't worry, it claims rising unemployment is a sacrifice they're happy for others to make to bring prices back under control. Charming.

The received economics wisdom goes something like this. Inflation is caused by there being too much money in circulation. Because workers have too much spending power, this magically means there are not enough goods to go around. Effective demand has outstripped effective supply. Therefore, to check inflation and drive it back down the money supply has to be tightened. And how does one do that? By putting up interest rates so a) people have an incentive not to spend but save their cash. b) to curb spending power by putting up mortgage, loan, and credit repayments, and c) driving businesses to the wall and pushing up unemployment to trash incomes. Therefore, in the early 1980s Thatcher's government (partly) justified its closure of state-owned industries and the subsequent return of mass unemployment in these terms. The workers had had it too good, and now it was time to pay. We also see it in Rish! Sunak's Tory leadership pitch. While Liz Truss offers what establishment scribblers love to call "cakeism", Sunak's policy menu is steeped in Thatcherite realism. His National Insurance increase is to stay because, he argues, reversing it as per the Truss plan would stoke inflation. There are two problems with this. Its reversal is peanuts compared to the rate of inflation. It's not going to make people flush by any means. And second, if we hold with his conceit that rising incomes causes rising prices, or exacerbate it, then why doesn't his energy bill handouts? Curious.

Actually, what is happening in the economy shows the falsity of the Thatcherite-Sunak perspective. Rising industrial action and double digit pay requests are responses, not causes of inflation. Pay has been flat for over a decade, and if anything the acute phase of the Covid crisis was very much a deflationary event as growth went into reverse, profits plummeted and wages went south. As Marx put it in his famous Wages, Price, and Profit,
a struggle for a rise of wages follows only in the track of previous changes, and is the necessary offspring of previous changes in the amount of production, the productive powers of labour, the value of labour, the value of money, the extent or the intensity of labour extracted, the fluctuations of market prices, dependent upon the fluctuations of demand and supply, and consistent with the different phases of the industrial cycle
. Think about what's been going on before the war in Ukraine got under way. Inflation was driven by asset price inflation. I.e. The property bubble that has been burgeoning since the 2008 crash and was stimulated by the bank bail outs. We might mention the country's persistent productivity crisis and the refusal by British capital to invest cheapens Sterling and means less bang for your buck in the global market place. The fluctuations in fossil fuel prices, and how it's more profitable for British gas producers to sell abroad precisely because of the weak pound. And how yo-yoing oil prices impact on global commodity prices. The capitalists can't be let off the hook either. Establishment economists like the Bank and Westminster City boys like Sunak never fret over the surplus profits British capital have enjoyed while successive governments have held wages down. Their continued price gouging is not some natural compulsion or the fortuitous consequences of just how the way things are. Their prosperity flourishes, and continues to flourish because they are not going to tighten margins and drop profits to help out the people that generate their wealth. Profit is sacrosanct, and the Tories agree. Their refusal to go against the inflationary grain is yet another example of the minority, wealthy interest trumping the common, general interest.

Where is Labour in all this? Offering practically nothing. In her response to the Bank of England's interest rate and projections announcement, Rachel Reeves announced a bold and brilliant response equal to the moment: a couple of hundred quid off heating bills by cutting VAT on fuel. And there will be people at party HQ scratching their heads in disbelief as Labour's poll leads slip from their recent double-digit highs. To be honest, we shouldn't expect anything different from Reeves. Despite an occasional gesture toward Labourism, her pre-politics career at the Bank of England, the embassy in Washington DC, and at Halifax Bank of Scotland saw her steeped in the same orthodox idiocies as Sunak, the BoE's personnel, and pretty much any "mainstream" economics wonk you can imagine. Her infamous and much quoted speech from 2013 that attacked people on social security was more than just right wing positioning - it comes straight from her spontaneous outlook, conditioned by years of being surrounded by the neoliberal commonsense of her peers. This certainly trumps the politics of the Labour family that is supposedly so dear to her. It was the left to the TUC's Kate Bell to argue the only way out is higher wages, stronger workers rights, and "profit restraint". The chance of Reeves taking this mildly Labourist line?

But this is a major political problem. Double digit inflation is a major crisis, and comes at the confluence of crises for the British state. If Truss wins the leadership contest, which is highly likely despite her aptitude for gaffs, with an energy bill non-payment campaign gathering steam and getting favourable coverage in the right wing press and Labour offering nothing in case they upset The Sun or whatever, Truss has an opportunity for something of a reset. There's little hint of it in her campaign at present, but the cost of living is such a problem, especially for the pension-dependent core Tory voter, she can define politics by doing the unthinkable. In other words, while Labour runs scared of providing effective opposition the idea a Truss government might raid profits or subject the Big Six energy companies to a Macron-style nationalisation cannot entirely be ruled out. At a stroke this would turn the Tories' fortunes around among those flirting with Keir Starmer, the Liberal Democrats, or are thinking about staying at home. Truss is set up nicely for a decent length of time in office and her party would be on course for its record fifth win in a row if she grasps this particular nettle. Right now, I'd say she's more likely to go for it than the shadow chancellor is.

It doesn't have to be this way. Westminster is in recess but politics does not go on holiday. It's not too much to expect a party supposedly serious about winning an election and fancies itself a government in waiting to have policies that can match the gravity of our predicament. The present Labour leadership does not, and as such they're leaving the door open for another successful Tory reinvention and all the electoral pain that entails.

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Tuesday, 2 August 2022

Does Liz Truss Have a Death Wish?

Writing in the New Statesman last week, former Tory minister David Gauke argued the Conservatives were taking a gamble on Liz Truss's judgement. For an average Tory member, such a claim is the remainy project fear nonsense you might expect from a partisan of anti-Johnsonism. If your political compass points to the magnetic north of Brexit, her campaign was trudging in the right direction. Sorting out the Northern Ireland Protocol, check. Standing up for Britain on the world stage and regularly calling out Putin, check. And threatening to walk away from the European Court of Human Rights if it objects some more to the vile Rwanda transportation plan, also check. There's also the unfinished business of the Boris Johnson government. According to polling by Tory think tank Polling First, the public as a whole like those policies which, at any other time, could be loosely described as Labour policies. And on the main one, levelling up, Truss is chill with that and has talked about northern powerhouse rail and helping farmers grow food. What was Gauke worried about? Everything was ticking over fine and dandy.

Oh dear. On Tuesday morning, The Indy splashed with Truss's plan to level down pay in the public sector. Briefed out by her press team, the plan wasn't a simple "you're all going to get pay cuts". It was a sneaky scheme to try and divide workers into two tiers. Starting from some unspecified point, all new employees would automatically receive lower pay while older workers would stay on the existing set of pay grades. The "savings", which were projected to be some £8.8bn, would only get realised over decades. Not exactly a policy you can fund immediate corporation tax cuts from. It also came with some way off assumptions, such as no one noticing because it affects employees who aren't employees yet. And second, the staff unions would not be bothered because existing workers are protected. Unsurprisingly, they were very much bothered. This shows three things. Truss and her lackeys don't understand workers and their organisations, they don't understand basic tactics for waging war on groups of workers (a trait she shares with Grant Shapps), and she has poor judgement by not paying any attention to the wider politics. Gauke has been proved correct in double quick time.

The backlash wasn't pretty, with some Tory MPs far from keen. Quicker than Theresa May dumped her dementia tax manifesto pledge, Truss about turned and junked her policy - perhaps the first time a Tory leadership candidate has ever done so. Speaking to the BBC, Truss said the policy had been "misrepresented" and had no intention of lowering the pay of teachers and nurses. But the point was moot anyway because regional pay boards weren't going to happen. Digging into this a bit further, the word from Truss's backroom was that they were looking for the savings from trimming civil service pay, but when it was pointed out the staffing budget is nine billion, leaving just £200m left to run the state bureaucracy, the policy transmogrified and expanded to all public sector workers. Someone's hasty arse-covering over misspeaking left big egg on the Tory frontrunner's face and has meant the abandonment of one planned attack on workers.

And this brings us back to Gauke's worries. Undoubtedly, had Truss persisted the backlash would have destroyed her campaign. Interesting how candidates in Tory leadership elections tend toward hubris when they're in pole position. It demonstrates that when her intentions have been rumbled and there's no way out, she won't do a Boris Johnson and try styling it out or sticking to her guns come what may as per the Margaret Thatcher of myth. This is useful to know. Truss has also shown she's not only capable of unforced errors, but that she's easily as flat footed as Rish! Sunak. Being able to do folksy charm and getting a good laugh at the Tory hustings doesn't mean she's in touch with real life outside her cosy Westminster set.

In my profile of her written last December, I highlighted her self-confessed preference for instinct and impulsiveness over considered thought and reflection. With the trade unions moving, with Covid hanging around and the Monkey Pox threat growing, the economy slowing, with energy bills and oil and gas profits soaring, and a non-payment campaign starting to make waves, Truss's character, and the obvious amateurishness of her team are going to have a hard time coping. Which probably explains why the latest poll by Techne of Tory party members now puts Sunak on only five points behind. The regional pay debacle probably won't sink her campaign, but her absence of sense could easily wreck her premiership.

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Monday, 1 August 2022

Five Most Popular Posts in July

July saw record breaking temperatures, and as always the takes here were sizzling hot. But what commanded the attention this last month?

1. The RMT Leaves TUSC
2. Explaining the Tory Leadership Race
3. Who is Penny Mordaunt?
4. The Hard Right and the Far Right
5. Ambition Over Integrity

Splits and rumours of splits ruled the roost, as it were. It's been a long time since a "far left" news story was the top of this particular chart, but it did used to be this site's bread and butter in many ways. And enough people in the real world cared to drop into the blog and find out what happened. I've since found out the RMT's withdrawal had more to do with the shenanigans and positioning of internal union politicking than antipathy to this woefully dismal electoral vehicle, but that it constitutes a blow to a still born project and its main sponsor can't be denied. Onto the rumours, Tory divisions took up the rest of the month - exactly how it should be round these parts. Our number two spot explains the politics underpinning the Tory leadership race - this is marked by the conjunctural and structural crises afflicting the party, neither of which any of the candidates (including the final two) have barely the wit to recognise let alone address. Coming in at three we zeroed in on Penny Mordaunt, who was flavour of the week at one point and the favourite to win. With any luck we need not concern ourselves with her again. Then we had a very rough rule-of-analytical-thumb piece on differentiating the hard from the far right in the Tory party - a division Rish! Sunak is desperately trying to overcoming in his wrought candidature. And lastly we have a consideration of his and Sajid Javid's resignations from cabinet. The end of Boris Johnson had nothing to do with their "integrity".

Second chances are easy to dole out this month. It goes to last night's missive. As the labour movement are putting on muscle mass again, it behoves Tory watchers to keep an eye on their rhetoric and plans. And, predictably, Grant Shapps has a legislative hammer up his sleeve to bring workers in struggle to heel. And that's our lot. I can imagine August will have more Tory divisions, more Labour uselessness, and one or two events we can't possible forecast right now. If you haven't already, don't forget to follow the free weekly newsletter, and if you like what I do (and you're not skint), you can help support the blog too!

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