Tuesday 29 November 2022

Resenting Bourgeois Subjects

Just Wendy Brown situating identity politics in its conformist and radical potentials. Beginning from the bourgeois subject as the standard for politics, she writes (States of Injury 1995, pp 59-60):
If it is this ideal that signifies educational and vocational opportunity, upward mobility, relative protection against arbitrary violence, and reward in proportion to effort, and if it is this ideal against which many of the exclusions and privations of people of colour, gays and lesbians, and women are articulated, then the political purchase of contemporary American identity politics would seem to be achieved in part through a certain renaturalisation of capitalism that can be said to have marked progressive discourse since the 1970s. What this also suggests is that identity politics may be partly configured by a peculiarly shaped and peculiarly disguised form of class resentment, a resentment that is displaced onto discourses of injustice other than class, but a resentment, like all resentments, that retains the real or imagined holdings of its reviled subject as objects of desire. In other words, the enunciation of political identities through race, gender, and sexuality may require - rather than incidentally produce - a limited identification through class, specifically abjuring a critique of class power and class norms precisely insofar as these identities are established vis-a-vis a bourgeois norm of social acceptance, legal protection, and relative material comfort. Yet, when not only economic stratification but other injuries to the human body and psyche enacted by capitalism - alienation, commodification, exploitation, displacement, disintegration of sustaining albeit contradictory social forms such as families and neighbourhoods - when these are discursively normalised and thus depoliticised, other markers of social difference may come to bear an inordinate weight; indeed, they may bear all the weight of the sufferings produced by capitalism in addition to that attributable to the explicitly politicised marking.

Sunday 27 November 2022

The Left after Corbyn

Reading Mike Phipps's Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow is an act of masochism for any left winger. Not because it's bad (it's not) or the arguments tendentious (they're not), but because it's a book about retreat. That is the retreat of the left from its position of strength in the Labour Party to where we are now, having gone through the experience of devastating election loss, the easy restitution of the right, the de facto expulsion of Jeremy Corbyn, and the barring of left wingers from constituency short lists. This all begs the question, where do we go now? Mike does offer some direction, but is it the right one?

Don't Stop is essential reading for anyone wanting a good tour of Labour's pains in the early 2020s. It's also useful for addressing some of the main arguments that have come from within the left to explain what happened. Mike is understandably coruscating of Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire's Left Out, which was the first book off the starting blocks. As the unofficial counterpart to Tim Shipman's Brexit duology, they explain matters entirely within the purview of he said/she said gossip mongery beloved of politics hacks. Owen Jones's This Land comes much better off because his offers a political critique of the Corbyn period: the leadership suffered because it lacked a coherent strategy and narrative, and Labour went high on policy instead of stooping low and attacking Boris Johnson's character. By way of a reply, Mike observes that had Corbyn gone for personal attacks it would have undermined his standing as an issues man, which had already suffered from the parliamentary manoeuvres over Brexit. Also, somewhat counter-intuitively to establishment and left arguments, Mike argues that Labour's adoption of the second referendum position had less of an impact than supposed. Quoting a contemporaneous poll of 2017 switchers from Labour, it found the Brexit position (17%) trailed leadership (43%). Brexit blaming also plays down the potentially greater losses to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens had the referendum position not been adopted. In my view, the immediate aftermath of the 2017 election was the time to cement Labour's position. That moment passed and by 2019 it was too late - what was adopted ensured a less worse outcome than what could have proven a complete catastrophe.

On Keir Starmer's leadership, Mike isn't likely to provoke much disagreement among his readers. He goes over the Labour leader's capitulation to the government on Covid (which was evident before he took office), which Starmer repeated time and again on undercover cop scandals, abstentionism on military offences, and what could only be described as reluctant opposition to the Tories' draconian sentencing bill. On trade union politics, such as the teachers' arguments against the government's reckless Covid strategy, there was studied silence. And on Starmer's campaign against the left, from sacking Rebecca Long-Bailey as soon as the opportunity presented itself to expelling Corbyn from the parliamentary party, all of Starmer's greatest hits are there. Curiously, Mike fits this into a theme of Starmer caving into right wing pressure. While there is always influence exerted from this direction, it does run the risk of letting Starmer off. For about 18 months, it's been clear that he has a project of his own that is simultaneously authoritarian and modernising, one centred on the restitution of state legitimacy and its efficacy. I think Mike's discussion would have benefited from reflecting a bit more on what Starmer's politics are about, because the idea he's uniquely scheming and Labour's faults stem from his legion of personal faults and habits has too much traction and speaks to a looking-out-for-a-hero politics the left would do well to avoid.

The what next prescription was always likely to be controversial. Mike observes that Labour still has a mass membership, despite the flood of resignations since Starmer won the leadership. As such, the party remains the biggest organised base of socialists and left wingers in this country. In fact, he registers his surprise that the exodus hasn't been bigger. Looking at arguments made by James Schneider and Jem Gilbert against those who've left the party, both have suggested these Labour leavers had a conditional attachment to the party. For as long as there was an accord between their views and the party's politics, they'd stay. Once that had disappeared, they did too. This typifies the "neoliberalisation" of political attitudes and engagement, of effectively getting into politics for a warm bath. Except this is not what Labour is. The party has always been a site of struggle, and therefore leaving is effectively ceding the field to the right. While Mike has some sympathy with the logic of this argument, he does point out that many of the new activists who joined the party in 2015 had previously gone through 13 years of Labour government and all the duplicity and right wing politics that entailed. Not wanting to be around for what many of them regard as more of the same is entirely understandable - but, as Mike says, still wrong. While not adopting the sharpness of the Schneider/Gilbert thesis, he does suggest too much of the left have adopted a defeatist mindset. Giving up struggling in the Labour Party typifies this.

In his own very thorough review of Don't Stop, Tom Blackburn argues that Mike does not get to grips with the book's great unsaid: Labourism. Rightly observing the party is a party of struggle and a party of state, with the Labour right putting loyalty to the latter above all, it can only ever be a compromised political location and one that stymies radical politics. Yet Labourism in its left manifestations cannot and will not face up to its own reality. Appealing to stay in the party, to fight rearguard actions against the right and sponsoring (and winning) progressive policies at conference rests on a fiction that change can come through the party. The experience of Corbynism, which at its best and most radical moments pushed at Labourism's limits have tested the Labour left's assumptions to destruction. Mike does shadow box with some aspects of the critique of Labourism by noting the historically poor performance of left wing parties that run in elections, but doesn't stop to ask whether this should be the criterion of political efficacy. To be fair, Mike does note the axis of struggle is now taking place outside the party, what with the street movements of recent years and the ramping up of serious trade union disputes. But a section of the Labour left have always engaged with extra-parliamentary struggles without offering a theory of political change that challenges Labourism's tenets.

There are no easy or ready answers. Tom, also acknowledging how the extra-Labour left have well-travelled the road to lost deposits, says that an alternative party remains essential for breaking with Labourism. Obviously, Mike thinks differently. Looking at the programme taking shape under the return to right wing Labourism, Starmer's prescriptions are an advance on what is offered by the Tories. Though obviously this comes with certain caveats. It means no change for those crossing the Channel in dinghies, for example. Whether his offering of a rejuvenated state is worth remaining in Labour for is another matter. A modest suggestion, then. As opposed to the defeatist mindset Mike warns against, perhaps instead we should come at matters with an organisers' mindset. That is maintaining the relationships built up during the course of the struggles we are embedded in, while looking to forge new connections and building new solidarities. It's obvious what this means for street movements and industrial action - build support, participate where directly involved, and push their politics on the cost of living crisis, on environmental degradation, police violence, and anti-racism. But doing this in Labour means asking searching questions and the action taken varies depending on where one is, the character of the local constituency party, if membership is a boon or hindrance to participating in wider struggles, and where the party runs councils if the power of local government can make a difference. Such a position does not have the advantage of a mapped out strategy apart from trying to cohere the left, wherever it is engaged, around and in service of current struggles. I haven't got a ready made answer, but perhaps one might come about through more collective action in the situations we find ourselves in.

Don't Stop therefore comes highly recommended. Mike provides an accurate summation of where the left are in the Labour Party, and while not a cheery read it is a necessary one. Changing the concrete situation is only possible if we're equipped with a sober analysis of it.

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Friday 25 November 2022

The Tories' Housing Crisis

If you wait by the river long enough, so goes the old Chinese proverb, the bodies of your enemies will float past. These last few weeks, I've found myself in this enviable position. Having banged on about the long-term decline of the Tories for a decade, mainstream politics has finally flowed in my direction. One can't move for Tory scribblers, politicians, and wonks despairing over the fate of their party. Ryan Shorthouse, the founder of the "modernising" think tank Brght Blue announced he was stepping down from leading the outfit. His party's betrayal of younger people has proven too much. Three young(ish) MPs - Dehenna Davison, Chloe Smith, and William Wragg have announced they're standing down at the next election. And even the Telegraph, the nearest organ to what passes for the Tories' collective brain, have a bad case of the jitters. As much as I'd like to think it's because the book is getting traction, in reality what I identified as a political fact of life has now become so obvious it cannot be ignored.

A core argument of my Tory decline thesis is their party is a barrier to aspiration. One does not become more conservative with age because aching bones and life experience spontaneously generates conservative attitudes. Instead it rests on the acquisition and ownership of property, and this is something the Tories used to understand. Margaret Thatcher, for example, sold off council housing on the cheap because she bet on it creating a millions-strong layer of mortgage holders. The disciplining consequence of debt, i.e. the need to keep up payments and making a generation of homeowners the beneficiaries of asset price inflation can and does have individuating, atomising, and conservatising effects. A look at historic data showing the relationship between owner occupation and the likelihood of supporting the Tories is known to any student of voting behaviour. But if property acquisition is disrupted, what then? Nothing good for the Tories. It means younger people are acquiring property later in life, if at all, and therefore it does not get the chance to exercise its rightist pull over time - as it has with large numbers of existing retirees.

The seemingly endless rise of house prices has had two consequences. One is a relatively numerous caste of petty landlords, who in turn are more or less solidly Tory in their politics. And then there is generation rent. Correctly, renters view the Tories as the party of those laying an unearned claim to their income just so they can put a roof over their heads. They are more numerous than the landlords and have the propensity to vote anyone but Tory. But since coming to power in 2010, the Tories temporarily off-setted their numbers deficit by relying on the older people who benefited from Thatcher's council house giveaway and the cheap mortgages of the 1980s. Older people turn out to vote, and younger people disproportionately do not. But this cannot last forever if an electoral coalition dependent on the old isn't reproducing itself. And it's not. The breakdown of property acquisition spells Tory doom.

Why don't the Tories do something about it? Social trends are not iron laws, after all. Belatedly, some in government have started waking up. Boris Johnson's so-called levelling up agenda partly addressed itself to the housing shortage. But this plan was fatally compromised because it was challenged from within the Treasury and Cabinet itself. We can't well have people expecting the state to do something that might benefit them, an orientation Rishi Sunak has been very happy to carry on with. Having put together a coalition dominated by the elderly and the propertied, doing nothing suits them while doing something opens the door to severe political difficulties.

Consider the putative rebellion by Tory MPs over housing targets this week. The rebel leader, former environment secretary Theresa Villiers, wrote earlier this month that she objected to "inappropriate" housing in her Chipping Barnet constituency. Building on the green belt was bad, and won't someone think of the environmental destruction this entails? Just don't talk about her voting record on climate change mitigation and low carbon energy generation. While there might be good reasons for some criticisms of top-down housing targets, appearances matter in politics and for millions this underlines their contempt they have for the Tories.

This might seem like NIMBYism on Villiers's part, but the reasons she and her 40-strong band of fellow rebels fielded were puff. They demonstrate the unbridgeable gulf between what the Tories need to do and what they can do. Political necessity requires they pander to the voter coalition they've built up since the New Labour years, and that chiefly means limiting the housing supply. Whether it helps maintain property values now prices are subject to downward pressures, or a "buoyant" rental market of too many renters chasing too few (expensive) lets, the consequences are the same. No excessive supply of new houses means their existing coalition benefits, and the crisis of Tory political reproduction plays out.

Because the Tories are stuck, they can write off the next two elections - unless Labour are the victims of catastrophes as stupid and as self-inflicted as Johnson's and Liz Truss's. But even then, the odds are not in the Conservative Party's favour. Memories last a long time and it's difficult to divine how the Tories could shake off their toxic housing legacy - as well as the myriad other ways they've made life worse for young and working age people. We're in existential crisis territory. Tory commentators are right to be concerned. The current occupant of Number 10 could be their last Prime Minister for quite some time.

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Tuesday 22 November 2022

An Introduction to Foucault

Plans for a discussion of Keir Starmer's immigration speech got canned by my having to trek around the West Midlands rail network to get home. And so, to make sure you don't leave this place without at least something here's a short but useful video on Foucault from the Acid Horizon comrades. Useful for anyone who can't see what the fuss is about.

Monday 21 November 2022

Keir Starmer and House of Lords Reform

Labour are set on abolishing the House of Lords if it wins the next election, says Keir Starmer. At a speech of assembled Lords and Ladies, he said the Tories' habit of packing the Lords with cronies, failed MPs and beloved donors was undermining confidence. Instead, the second chamber should be fully elected but carry on its function of scrutinising and amending legislation. It would not become a rival centre of power to the Commons. Its size and nuts and bolt details (term limits? Electoral system? What to do with the bishops?) are to be determined, as are the fates of newly appointed Labour members - the latest tranche of which are due to take up their seats in early December. Pretty unambiguous and said at a time when Starmer is under no pressure to sugar coat his intentions.

The Tories don't like it. It would, apparently, undermine the Union. Quite how, they don't say. And it would clash with elected politicians in the Commons and the devolved governments. Again, not necessarily the case given its competencies are unlikely to exceed those the Lords currently enjoys. I.e. The most it could do is delay the government's plans and lay down some annoying amendments. Unsurprisingly, the Tories have an interest to declare. When Dave justified the constituency boundary readjustment way, way back in the Coalition years, weeding out 50 or so MPs was about reducing the cost of politics. Funnily, this never applied to the Lords. Since 2010, the growth trajectory has been upwards. There are now 786 sitting members and where, coincidentally, the Tories are the largest party. Removing this unelected hindrance on the desires of a Labour government should be something any Labour leader would seek to do.

Yet, we're back at a familiar contradiction. Keir Starmer is authoritarian and, among other things, Starmerism is an authoritarian political project. But, as per the enthusiasm for trade unions, where does the desire for more democracy fit in? Like a hand in a glove, as it happens. The Fabian tradition, which is core to Starmerism is not a dictatorial politics, but rather an elite managerialist politics adapted to liberal democratic conditions. Electorates are asked to choose between a cadre of elites every four or five years to run government, and they get on with the business of politics while the little people return to spectator status at best, but most usually indifference. Opening up another set of elections would not fundamentally change this. After all, devolution hasn't (whereas Corbynism would have).

It's also part and parcel of Starmer's strategy to restore the legitimacy of state institutions. And in this, offering democratic reforms are a sequel to the limited modernisation of the UK constitution carried out by Tony Blair. On top of referenda on devolution, Lords reform was carried out as well. Hereditary peers were expelled from the Lords in 1999, apart from a bridging group of 92 to tide the place over while reforms were implemented. There was promise of more to come, but it never did - finally getting killed by the Tories, despite having agreed to an elected chamber with the Liberal Democrats. Blair's motivation was to restore faith in the state by using limited reform as a means of bedding down the politics of (New) Labour and, in Scotland's case, addressing the alienation from Westminster that had grown worse under the previous 18 years of Tory rule.

For Starmer, Lords reform can't be divorced from his bigger package of measures. He knows there's no clamour for it in the real world, but it's a quick and relatively cost-free means of telegraphing his intentions as a change-minded politician, albeit one more interested in overhauling the form of UK democracy than deepening its substance.

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Sunday 20 November 2022

Briefing Bregret

If there has been consistency between the last four Prime Ministers, it's been a desire to get Brexit done and put distance between the UK and the European Union. It was only a couple of months ago that Liz Truss couldn't decide whether Emmanuel Macron, the president of a nation that's been in alliance with the UK for 120 years, was friend or foe. And today, The Tories are set on delivering Britain to Brussels on a platter. Well, not quite. But the report in the Sunday Times has upset a lot of people. Apparently, Rishi Sunak is looking at developing a "Swiss-style" relationship with the EU. This would mean the removal of tariffs and checks but also, horror of horrors, could allow some influence for the European Court of Justice, contributions to EU coffers, and compromises on the freedom of movement. Some people are not pleased if the right wing froth on Twitter is anything to go by.

This comes with caveats. The report speaks of Britain's relationship with the EU evolving in this direction over the next decade, albeit with Sunak looking to cut deals sooner rather than later to knock the irksome corners of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal. Neither are the EU especially keen to repeat the Swiss arrangement any time soon, but it should be remembered the UK is an order of magnitude more significant (economically speaking) than Switzerland and that Brexit's impact has been felt across Europe as well. There are plenty of businesses on the continent who'd like to see the relaxing of trade barriers. But the politics of this for Sunak are difficult. He might have been a true Brexiteer, but his stronger grip on political realities tends him toward ameliorating the UK's strained relationship with the EU. He can't be anything but aware that the growing consensus among the "sensible" elements of his class that the damage done has to be mitigated.

On the other hand, the Brexit fundamentalists are concentrated on his side of the Commons. Sunak already has a legitimacy issue in that he studiously sidestepped an open contest in front of the membership. And while he has kept some of his would-be enemies close, such as Suella Braverman and Steve Baker, I doubt this would be enough to becalm the backbenches worried that the "achievement" of Brexit could vanish. With a rebellious mood abroad over some aspects of Jeremy Hunt's budget, it might encourage the awkwards to get a little bit awkward. In the medium term, there's concern for the Tories' right flank as well. Some of the more racist elements of Tory support have defected to the continuity Brexit Party, trading these days as Reform UK. And what do you know, Nigel Farage has piped up again with the threat to "crush" the Tories should the government take the Swiss road. Hard to see how he can without EU elections to ponce off, but grifters are gonna grift.

Being seen to renege on Brexit, however, is potentially dangerous to the Tories' shrinking coalition. A lot depends on the attitude the press are going to take. The problem with Truss's budget is she blew up the economy for the benefit of a few hedge funds and everyone, including most of the capitalist class, have paid the price with an unstable pound, skittish money markets and surging inflation. Are they going to play along with the "sensible" consensus, or use it as they have done with Braverman, Dominic Raab, and Gavin Williamson to try and push the government around?

Sunak is walking a tightrope. To his right are the gnashing teeth of Tory irreconcilables and the Brexit ultras. And to his left lies an increasingly confident and combative-sounding Labour Party. The polls continue to have the Tories in doom territory, and the Prime Minister's flat footedness, as per the Swiss briefing here, mean more trips are likely before the final fall.

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The Bourgeois Politics of Brexit

As forecast on many occasions, Brexit is unravelling. It was and is dysfunctional for British capital as a whole, apart from a few outliers, and is depressing GDP growth on mainland Britain as Boris Johnson's deal multiplies paper work and closes off markets on the continent. Polling supports the view that Brexit is turning out to be a failure, with a branding it as such by 56% to 32%. Even the government can't deny reality any longer, with the Sunday Times reporting how Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are considering a closer, "Swiss-style" relationship with the European Union. Putting this to one side, within establishment circles there is something of a gap. On the one hand, popular support for Leave has been explained as a plebeian revolt against immigration and wokery by white working class people. A bullshit argument if there ever was one, but precious little has been said about the persistence of Brexit and Leaveism among Tory MPs themselves. It's treated like an irrational affectation by centrist and EU-leaning elites.

This "explanation" from a couple of months back from Matthew Syed illustrates the thinking perfectly. Brexit is a cult, and it has the Conservative Party in a vice-like grip. He argues that to understand Tory behaviour of the last six years, only one perspective makes sense: group psychology. Drawing on the work of Leon Festinger who was interested in the sustenance of group delusions, he infiltrated a UFO cult to observe what would happen when its predictions - that members would get whisked away by flying saucers on such-and-such a date - didn't happen. When the aliens stood them up, the cult guru rescheduled their appearance to the future and doubled down on their beliefs. Syed's contention is that believing in Brexit shares these characteristics. Pointing out data demonstrating that Britain is poorer, weaker, and more diminished is like talking to a wall. They're not interested, with its adherents lashing out at the "remainer" Treasury and "woke" financial markets for the country's predicament this last month. More reasonable Brexiteers might point out that Sunak did offer Tory members an alternative, and what we see now is thanks to Truss's idiocy. Which is only partly true.

The only way out for Syed is a change of government. The Tories need to relinquish power. That this is being touted openly across the Conservative press is remarkable and a sign of how dire their circumstances are. In a paean to Tory MP Charles Walker who famously denounced the collapse of government discipline and said the first duty of the Tory party is to the country, Syed writes,

I almost felt like hugging him as I heard those words, for it hinted at the Tory party that so many of us once admired. A party of pragmatism, of moderation, of realism. We need that party back for the health of our democracy. So, please, call an election, take a break and find yourselves again. Do so now, and you’ll be back. Cling on to the bitter end, changing leaders, jumping through hoops, gazing at navels, and you may never be forgiven.
It's worth noting Syed is a former Labour candidate, an admirer of briefcase politics, and a fan of good Tories. But still, his argument is superficially plausible. The Tory majority made a Leave judgement call because reasons and have stuck with it to the moment of destruction. But this explains nothing. For instance, why was Brexit the glue that held their voter coalition together when the Tories might easily have clung to the cuts-and-deficit dogmatism of the Dave and Osborne years? After all, wasn't it Labour's perceived weakness on the issue that won the Tories the 2015 election? Syed does nothing to explain why Brexit was the object of Tory "cultism". And that's fine, for in the bourgeois press it doesn't do to peer too closely into such things. Hence we're left with a junk psychosocial argument that says something while not saying anything.

The truth of the matter is Brexit and the Tory attitude to Europe are closely bound to issues of statecraft, class struggle, and divisions among British capital. It is not a whimsy impermeable to serious analysis, nor a matter of emotional attachments to a free-floating "ideology" these elite circles subscribe to. Consider the obsession with sovereignty, a much-invoked concept at the heart of Tory Brexit discourse. It's not enough to point out that the European Union can't be described as an anti-democratic affront to the UK state, nor that since leaving the EU British sovereignty has declined vis a vis global markets and our reduction in status from a European rule maker to rule taker. These don't matter, and understanding why requires a short descent down the Tory time tunnel.

Euroscepticism as we understand it is inseparable from Thatcherism. As is well known, the overriding (and self-defined) purpose of her governments was putting the labour movement back in its box. This involved shutting down nationalised industries and the deliberate stoking of mass unemployment, and smashing trade union power - above all, the miners - in set piece industrial disputes. This project demanded a centring of state authority. Then, as now, the state was a sprawling set of institutions with their areas of competence, lines of accountability, and degrees of autonomy. This reflected not just the expansion of the state to meet social demands and expectations placed on it, but also the (semi-) integration of the labour movement into official society, the absorption of a growing strata of professional and middle class occupations, and the management of an increasingly complex and variegated population. If the Tories were going to smash the labour movement, the writ of the executive, of the government, had to be enforced in deed and not in word inside the state. Hence, as per its confrontation with pickets Thatcher's government simply trampled over convention, regulation, and expertise in health, education, local government, and social security. In each case the aim was the same: destroy the relative independence they enjoyed from the centre, and firmly subordinate all state institutions to a rapidly centralising, authoritarian government and its habit of arbitrary intervention.

Thatcher made the state's class character more explicit. It became a machine overtly concerned with smashing working class power and eroding its institutions. Therefore any apparatus, within or without, that checked governmental power in some way had to be (and was) seen off. And this is where the antipathy toward the European Community and then the EU came from. Thatcher was a known Europe enthusiast during the 1975 EC referendum, but became progressively more hostile during her premiership. This was simply because, as barriers to governmental authority were dismantled, the European Court and the European Commission, offered limited means by which Tory schemes could be frustrated. As Thatcher put it herself in her famous Bruges speech, "We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level". Sovereignty then has nothing to do with democracy, and its only relationship to freedom is allowing the British government to do as it may without oversight or blockage. As subsequent governments have only enhanced the power of the executive at the expense of other institutions, most Tories experienced the EU as an increasingly burdensome check. Their antipathy persisted because, wrapped in all kinds of nationalist nonsense, was a frustrated class instinct, and one that was finally freed when the UK finally exited the EU. It's therefore no accident the calamity of Liz Truss happened after Brexit and why many Tories cheered her ridiculous budget. This was democracy for them - the complete freedom of the British government to act as it pleased, and "it pleased" meant sustaining the prevalent balance in the relations of production.

Politics, they say, are concentrated economics. And it's not just the practical politics of waging class struggle that made Euroscepticism the common sense of the Tory party but the economics itself. As argued here several times, the Tories are committed to maintaining the global supremacy of the City of London. This comes before increasing GDP figures, deficit management and paying down public debt, dealing with unemployment and tackling the balance of payments. There are several reasons for this. Many Tories, their families, and the networks they move in have direct interests in the health of the City. Sunak as Prime Minister typifies this linkage. It is crucial for the British bourgeoisie itself. The traditionally dominant bloc in the capitalist class owe their fortunes to City-based commercial capital and the investments made via its offices. They have a vested interest in attracting more capital flows to London (i.e. more brokerage fees to be extracted, more opportunities for "wealth management", and a local high end property market to park cash in), and therefore possess an antipathy to anything that might threaten its operation. Such as state regulation of transactions, moves to close tax loopholes, checks on inward "investment" - in other words, anything that might provide a check on these markets. Indeed, the congruence between seeing the City "free" of external interference is not unrelated to the Tory preoccupation with state sovereignty. Finally, the privileged position the City occupies in the raising and disposal of capital grants the British bourgeoisie and, by extension, its state a similarly advantageous position. The empire is long gone but their empire of capital remains, and this extra clout in the international arena can (and does) afford British capital as a whole more access to global investment opportunities. I.e. It opens markets for the export of capital, as opposed to the export of goods.

The interests in the City might be broadly the same, but those who own and manage funds and capital flows aren't necessarily of like mind. All want to expand the City, increase transactions, attract more capital, and keep the British position as global leaders in commercial and finance. But how to go about it? One side, arguably the largest section of the City (as well as the ruling class as a whole), were broadly aligned with the EU project. Having been integrated into the wider European economy for 40 years, the pooling of sovereignty with the UK's traditional rivals offered plenty of opportunities as part of the world's largest economic bloc. The opt outs negotiated by successive governments from certain EU rules enabled the City to enjoy considerable autonomy while remaining within the formal umbrella of its regulatory regime. And, as part of said bloc, the EU's collective muscle would leave the City well placed as a direct beneficiary of trade deals negotiated with the rest of the world. A minority among the City and the capitalist class generally disagreed. For some, it was the swashbuckling view that without the EU "getting in the way" that even more advantageous deals could be pursued by facing outwards. As the sub-Saharan African and East Asian states are on long-term growth trajectories, the EU is in relative decline. A more agile Britain (i.e. the City) could take advantage of this by casting off from the EU. A component of this community of opinion was dark money, whose interests were tied up in laundering money through the capital. Sometimes proceeds of crime, but usually the corrupt acquisitions of heads of state and their families. The Tory support of the Russian oligarchy is a case in point. Outside of the EU, and with a government desperate to cultivate favours with regimes the world over, regulatory oversight of this financial sludge would be weak to non-existent and this section of British commercial capital would benefit handsomely.

As we know, Vote Leave and Leave.EU, who not at all coincidentally had money from murky overseas sources tied up in their enterprises, won. The section of the Tory party who agreed with the Leave prospectus for prosperity outside the EU perfectly understood that this was for them, and not the millions who voted for Brexit. It was only when Liz Truss carried Brexit and the sovereignty it afforded to its logical conclusion, when all but a few Tory-aligned hedge funds were hit by the Truss/Kwarteng car crash that a key section of elite Brexit supporters, again personified by Sunak's briefcase tendency, that perhaps the hard Brexit pursued by Boris Johnson needs unpicking. The wider economy has taken a hit and has added to the pre-existing inflation problem, but more importantly the City itself has been severely degraded thanks to the double whammy of EU capital diverting to its own commercial and finance markets, and the war in Ukraine and associated sanctions has (temporarily) stemmed corrupt Russian capital flows. To salvage something from the wreckage, a closer relationship with the EU is now an obvious necessity.

Ultimately, explaining Brexit and why sections of business and the state are wedded to the project means understanding class politics and divisions within ruling class politics. It does not explain how Brexit won the referendum and, subsequently, won the politics, but it helps us understand the character it has assumed, why euroscepticism was primarily an elite pursuit among the ruling class's preferred party and, because of how it's linked to coalition of interests, why some of these want to double down on Brexit. Values and identities and dogmatic attachments to ideas are fine things to have, but they all pale against power and filthy lucre.

Saturday 19 November 2022

Capitalism: The Great Devourer

Highly recommend you give this episode of Politics Theory Other a listen. Alex interviews Nancy Fraser about her latest book, Cannibal Capitalism. An important intervention and reinstatement of how capitalism consumes everything it comes into contact with.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Stewarding the Depleted State

The Tory budget's been, and over the next few days a whole lot of household cash will go. Economically speaking, just like the first round of austerity (which never really went away), Jeremy Hunt's prescription for fixing the crisis of the Tories' own making will only compound stagnation, cause more business failure, and drag the economy further down the post-Covid, post-Brexit spiral. His protestations that growth is at the heart of everything the government does are just words. In what was probably the best performance of her career, in reply to the statement Rachel Reeves had little trouble eviscerating Hunt and his miserable prospectus.

Enough people have written about the economics, but what ultimately matters is the politics. The 10.1% increase in the state pension from April demonstrates Hunt has resisted those suicidal Tory voices seemingly bent on breaking the triple lock. And the uprating of benefits, something of a reluctant measure forced on the government by Boris Johnson's past promises and, more importantly, a change in political climate, does at least allow Hunt and Rishi Sunak to cosplay as compassionate conservatives. Even if their delayed introduction means no help now, sees pensions and social security depreciate in real terms, and subjects Universal Credit recipients to even more conditionality checks. Meanwhile, as Hunt announced an increase in the energy price cap from April the Tories went out their way to protect their real people. No, not the mass base they've long successfully suckered, but the likes of the oil companies. Despite expanding the pitiful levy on fossil fuel profits Sunak introduced early in the year, the tax breaks for investing in exploration remain. No closure of the non dom tax scheme, no proper taxation of unearned income (dividends and rents), no cap on bankers' bonuses, and, incredibly, a tax cut on bank profits.

Particularly insidious are the Tories' cuts to the public sector. Current spending will be maintained, which means real term cuts across the board - with the exception of more money for the NHS and a bit more for education. But most of what is going to happen is getting stored up for after the next general election. How unlike the Tories to put party politics before everything else. With George Osborne brought in to advise Hunt and Sunak, the ruse has his cynical fingerprints all over it. Services don't get cratered this side of the election and so any anger and opposition cuts would stoke are put on the never never. Meanwhile, the Tories can retreat to a pre-2010 austerity comfort zone, which would undoubtedly get marketed as "compassionate cuts". This wouldn't win them the election - only complete disaster can now knock Labour off course. Allied to their grotesque anti-immigration posturing, it'd be enough to cohere the base so something remains from the ashes of the coming defeat. Labour then cop the flak for "fiscally responsible" cuts and the Tories return, reinvented, at the general election after. Why not carry on as if the party's long-term decline isn't a thing?

Hunt's budget offered no political surprises. The state's capacity to do things is in crisis after 12 years of cuts and neglect. The break down in basic functions, first a consequence of Tory policy, looks increasingly like a matter of deliberate policy as the Tories work to wind in the horizon of political possibility. This statement sits entirely inside this do-nothing logic, where doing nothing means ratcheting up the misery and condemning everyone to substandard services. A declining party stewarding a depleted state. The Tories have worked toward this scenario, and this is how they would prefer things to stay.

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Monday 14 November 2022

Starmerism and Trade Unionism

Having spent a leadership campaign making promises and then reneging on them, it's understandable that some labour movement people don't always believe what Keir Starmer says. To get around this, there's a good rule to apply. With Labour enjoying huge poll leads and it's being virtually certain of winning the next general election, what Starmer says now is what he's likely to do. There's an absence of pressure and need to compromise. When he talks about getting tough with Just Stop Oil protesters and attacks the Tories' draconian anti-immigration policies for not being efficient enough, no one has a problem believing this is what he wants to do. His authoritarian politics have been telegraphed enough times.

Yet there are a couple other things Starmer and the shadow cabinet keep going on about when they don't have to. One of them is the repurposed Green New Deal, and the other is the most significant extension of trade union rights since the 1970s. This, outlined by Andy McDonald before he quit the front bench last Autumn, got re-emphasised in Starmer's statement of intent published on the eve of the 2021 conference. Since then, Starmer has repeatedly referenced workers' rights from day one, and it got the retread treatment this weekend as Angela Rayner unveiled Labour's new deal for working people. This is not the place for a deep dive into the pledges, but more the seeming incongruity between Starmer's authoritarianism and his enthusiasm for trade unionism. Surely they are at cross purposes?

It could be read as a sop to the trade unions. Compensation for the abandonment of Corbynism's pro-worker, pro-working class agenda. And some comrades could be forgiven for thinking once the trade union reddies are banked that this charter will go the way of the Warwick I and Warwick II agreements during the Blair and Brown years. New Labour conceded worker-friendly policies in return for cash to ease the party's money woes, but were never implemented. Such scepticism is understandable and has precedent, but I don't believe either are the case. Rather, this pro-trade union position is entirely compatible with Starmer's politics. It's not a quirk or hold over from leftier times, but integral to his politics.

For one, it's been noted here enough that central to Starmer's authoritarianism is Fabian technocracy, that politics is not a question of interests or ideas, but the right managers. A position shared by most of the parliamentary party. And there are many schools of managerialism and how to handle industrial relations. Because we've got so used to neoliberal politics framing workplace matters, successive governments - even in moments of class peace - have barely concealed their treatment of workers as the enemy within. An industrial dispute is not something to be resolved, but toughed out and broken. Employees are to be starved back to work with nothing conceded. Strike action is always the result of troublesome militants. No matter how awful and bullying management is, disputes are the faults of the workers.

This does not appear to be Starmer's view. There has always been a patrician or "enlightened" management view that holds workplaces are partnerships between employer and employee, and one gets the best from workers by being friendly, supportive, relatively open, and clear about what an organisation/enterprise is trying to achieve. This is industrial relations as human resources, where the carrot always precedes the stick. Therefore, when a workforce comes into dispute it's a failure of management. They're in charge, they're responsible, and they have allowed a manageable situation to become unmanageable. Therefore, trade unionism is a means of structuring employer/employee dialogue, as well as providing basic protections against unscrupulous and unfit bosses. It's something good managers should welcome.

This might be how Starmer sees trade unionism as a workplace justice issue, but it's more politically significant than that. As mentioned here many times, in as far as a "Starmerism" exists, it's a politics for fixing the depleted state. If the state can't do basic things like sorting out passports in a timely fashion or resource enough ambulances, a crisis of legitimacy is not far away. Starmer wants to restore faith in the state and its institutions - an essential prerequisite for Fabian (and bourgeois) politics. But this also means preventing state overreach in other ways. As the Tories are set on reducing state capacity further, the Starmerist approach to trade unions have to be seen in this context. I.e. Repairing state legitimacy lies in re-establishing its "neutrality" in industrial matters. It represents the public interest versus the vested, producer interests of workers and bosses and therefore should not take sides but provide frameworks for dispute resolution. Therefore, the cowardice Labour is regularly chided over for refusing to show solidarity with workers in dispute, even when their cause is popular, is not so much a "fear" of the electoral consequences of solidarity. It has much more to do with its managerialist politics, and how Starmer wants to reposition an rebuild the state. This is in contrast to the Tory approach who go out of their way to oppose every strike and are therefore politicising disputes, making the state appear less than neutral and demonstrating its class character. Not useful for any project aimed at winning and keeping the consent of the many.

This suggest two further objectives. This empowerment of workers afforded by day one collective rights and state neutrality is suggestive of Starmerism moving in the direction of tripartism. That is abandoning the confrontational approach to industrial relations and creating partnership structures between the labour movement, business, and the state. These can only get buy in if the constituent organisations, presumably the TUC and CBI, believe government is an honest broker. Rather than the laissez-faire of the last 40-odd years, this is a way of providing purpose and giving the appearance of everyone having a stake in a common endeavour. 21st century modernisation, Starmer style, has been swotting up on the 1950s. And the second issue is by giving trade unions a position around the table, it introduces new pressures on them to discipline their members and keep demands inside the parameters of partnership. The theory being corporatist management generates industrial peace, and with it higher productivity, a prosperous economy, a happier work force, and a re-legitimised state guided by far sighted, well meaning (Labourist) managers.

I could be completely wrong, of course, but given Starmer's authoritarian politics, his concern with state modernisation, but his evident enthusiasm for extending the rights of trade unions to organise workers, this is how they fit in with his project. Evidently, this would reset the terms of class struggle in this country and raise a host of opportunities and challenges, but it's certainly a way out of the mess the Tories have left that recuperates the rising tide of trade union struggle into a politics of state legitimation and a programme for stabilising British capitalism.

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Sunday 13 November 2022

Murdering Twitter

The brilliance of billionaires is not something I've ever held with. Their backstories are usually one of generously-provided start up capital, usually from the bank of well-to-do mum and dad, luck and timing mistaken for business acumen, and more often than not big state contracts and plenty of fictitious capital. This week, for example, we've seen the aptly-named Sam Bankman-Fried's crypto currency-derived billions simply vanish - a whole lot of money that, it turned out, didn't really exist. Similarly, the same can be said for Elon Musk. Reputed to be worth over $200bn, he still had to scrape together IOUs from banks, the Gulf's absolutist sheikdoms and various odds and sods, including Bankman-Fried, to finance his $44bn purchase of Twitter. And what has Musk done with his new plaything? He's completely trashed the platform's commercial value, and made himself look like an utter fool.

Unlike Meta and Google who have a strong business model based around the harvesting of data and using this to sell advertising, since its inception Twitter has proven much more difficult to monetise. If one's Twitter feed is cluttered with too many adverts, the platform's utility declines. And given the proliferation of apps through which Twitter can be viewed, it's a lot more difficult to bring in the commercial megabucks its peers enjoy. In 2020-21 it achieved an all-time revenue high of $5bn, but still posted a net loss of $221m. Reversing this appears to be Musk's priority to the exclusion of all else, and so within a week of his taking over he fired practically all the executive team and made approximately half of Twitter's staff redundant - leaving the company open to legal action outside the United States for violating local redundancy laws. Contrary to his cool techbro image, Musk also ordered the remaining staff back to the offices, a demand that has gone down as well as the fail whale did with old-time Twitter users. And Musk decided to "innovate". Claiming the mantle of man of the people, Musk said he was now charging verified accounts - the famous blue ticks - $8/month for the privilege of the badge. It has proved to be a disaster.

The arrival of the blue tick of verification did, at least for some Twitter users, signify a two-tier system. It awarded status to those upon whom it was conferred. However, the advantage of the system was that it verified the user. If, for example, the blue ticked Downing Street account tweeted something then it was official, not some impersonator. By introducing verification by payment, Musk at a stroke removed the only mark of trust the platform offered. For example, a blue ticked feed purporting to be Eli Lily and Company, a US pharmaceutical giant, announced it was making its insulin products free. That wiped $20bn off the firm's stock market value. Lockheed Martin was also stung by a similar prank, announcing sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States would be suspended pending human rights abuse investigations. Their share price dropped 5.5%. It's a wonder these firms haven't launched action against Musk for damages done around trade mark infringement. Whatever, it will certainly put off further corporate engagement with Twitter as they try and protect their brand image. And the effect it will have on advertising can only make a bad situation worse.

How to explain this colossal idiocy? It demonstrates Musk's gargantuan arrogance and belief in his own Midas touch. There are no 11 dimensional reasons why he's trashed its primary revenue stream. He's not doing a solid for the Saudis and Qataris who part-financed his purchase. He's not wrecking the site because of secret deals done with other social media platforms. It's entirely a wrong decision driven by hubris and not having anyone around him who'll say no. In short, he is to Twitter what Liz Truss was for the UK economy and the Conservative Party. After 48 hours, the paid for blue tick scheme was abandoned but that's unlikely to reverse the damage to Musk's reputation. It makes you wonder how well SpaceX would manage if it wasn't propped up by US Space Force and NASA cash.

Unfortunately, while Musk will survive his humiliation to make another spectacle of himself the future of Twitter itself is less certain. Having already loaded the company with a billion dollars worth of debt, the public failure of his revenue generating scheme and sharp decline in advertisers could well bankrupt the company. And this would be an outrage. Twitter has all kinds of problems, but like other platforms it has become essential infrastructure. It is next to impossible to follow politics in this country without Twitter. It's where stories are broken, analyses are shared, and politicians get a measure of daily accountability. It's space where it is still possible to report on news the mainstream refuse to pick up and can be kept alive. Serendipitous connections are forged with every moment, and unlike other algorithm-heavy sections of the internet there's still a good chance of finding something random and interesting. More importantly, despite efforts by sundry dictatorships Twitter is the main method of getting reports and video out of closed societies and get the information quickly disseminated. There is no other place like it, and despite its regular descent into bad faith, ad hominem, and ridiculous wars over petty slights, politics and democracy would be the poorer for it.

Musk's antics reiterate the need for removing social media from private hands. Communication is the lifeblood of the common, and only common ownership will do.

Saturday 12 November 2022

Putin's Kherson Humiliation

Seeing Ukrainians enthusiastically welcoming soldiers on the streets of Kherson would move all but the stoniest, politically blinkered hearts. The Russian withdrawal from Kherson region - long planned but rapidly executed - is testament to the resilience. skill, and sacrifices of the Ukrainian military. The Russian Ministry of Defence's removal of all its troops, though certainly not all its heavy equipment, is just about the first outright battlefield success Vladimir Putin's regime has enjoyed since the war began. But the price paid is Russia's utter humiliation on the world stage. Its military losses are staggering and the pre-war edge the Russian army had over Ukraine in properly-trained personnel and materiel has taken such a dent that Moscow is now pressing prisoners and draftees into the line, where casualties are proving particularly horrendous. And in further blows to Putin's prestige, his military is proving to be the biggest donor to Ukraine thanks to the machinery and ammunition fleeing troops are wont to leave behind. What should have been a quick, sharp policing action has become a grind that can only imperil Putin himself.

He can't say he wasn't warned. Indeed, one of the reasons why a lot of commentators were caught on the hop by his invasion, despite his weeks of posturing and fiery rhetoric, was the fact the troops assembled for the "special military operation" were too few and that Ukraine not only had a larger and better equipped army than in 2014, when Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk were claimed by the Russian Federation, it would mobilise for total war. Forget the nonsense about the United States goading Russia into war, this catastrophic misjudgement was Putin's and Putin's alone.

Consider the last nine months. The Russians poured over the border and headed toward Kiev where their armour simply sat on the roads and was gradually worn down by determined resistance to the point they had to abandon the attack and with draw from the environs of the city. In the summer, Ukraine very loudly announced to the world that it would be undertaking a counter offensive in the south of the country to liberate Kherson region. The Ministry of Defence took it on face value and rushed troops and heavy equipment across the Dneiper. The Ukrainians then shelled and knocked out the bridges, and slammed the real counter attack into the thinly held region around Kharkhiv. The Russian lines melted and 12,000 square km of land was recaptured, along with masses of equipment and the grim findings of multiple mass graves. By October, the pressure on the southern front was too much for Russia and the withdrawal began, with all soldiers making it back to the east bank of the river within the space of 24 hours. A decrepit state can only ever field a decrepit army.

Apart from withdrawing from Kherson in a timely manner, the only other success Russia can point to presently is the fighting on the borders of Donetsk where, for the best part of two months, its has been grinding towards Bakhmut. Almost two thirds of the city are in rubble, and it's been the site of some of the most intense fighting seen in the war. Every advance by Russian forces has been countered and thrown back but, with the remorseless logic of a First World War meat grinder, hundreds of newly mobilised Russian troops are thrown into the fray day after day. Yet the price paid in blood and equipment doesn't appear to be allied to any strategic perspective. Should the town get captured, it doesn't really improve Russia's tactical position. Indeed, the Ukrainian army would, if anything, find it even easier to degrade their opponent's forces by artillery from nearby higher ground. It appears to be an operation aimed at taking the city for the sake of taking something.

That is indeed the case. This region of the front line is under control Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former caterer/restaurateur turned private military contractor. His Wagner Group (who harbour as many if not more Neo-Nazis than Ukraine's famous Azov Regiment) have fielded their own private army outside of the Ministry of Defence's chain of command. It's Wagner that have recently been allowed to recruit from prisons. The use of mercenaries on the battlefield are normally problematic. Fighting for coin rather than country marks them out as more risk averse troops, but on the face of it the modest advances made since the beginning of the Autumn compares favourably to the 'official' army's performance in the north and south of Ukraine. And this is entirely the point of the Wagner "offensive". Prigozhin, as a long time Putin crony who amassed a huge fortune from corrupt state contracts, is angling for more power. It is an instance of how, as per all authoritarian regimes and dictatorships, elites compete with one another for favour and office. What does it matter if Ukraine are chewing up hundreds of troops around Bakhmut as long as Prigozhin's star carries on rising? No amount of deaths or setbacks can stop this from being a good war, as far as he's concerned.

The question now is where does the war go next. The Russians are dug in on the south bank of the Dneiper and with crossings across the wide river out of action, a lightning fast thrust from the environs of Kherson seems unlikely. However, the two main access roads into Crimea are within range of Ukrainian artillery and so we can expect the Russian occupation there to come under pressure. Which hasn't been great since a (seeming) special forces attack severely damaged the Crimean Bridge that linked the peninsula to Russia proper. An attack further to the east to cut off Russian holdings from Donetsk would appear to be a logical choice - one so obvious even Putin's MoD should be able to anticipate it. On the other hand, there are concerns Belarus might enter the war on Russia's side, imperilling Kiev once again, and the situation in the East could do with reinforcements and added firepower to squash Wagner and prosecute an advance into Luhansk. With momentum, confidence, strategic nous and a steady stream of Western weapons, Ukraine has the initiative.

There are no good options for Putin. The recapture of Kherson underlines how unwinnable the war has become for Russia. So low are its military stocks that it's relying on Iran for drones and missiles and, incredibly, North Korea for small arms munitions. The professional army has been virtually thrown away without enough left to train the draftees, meaning hundreds are showing up on the front lines every morning who will be dead by evening. And, it was widely reported, that Russia has begged Syria to send troops and is looking at recruiting Afghan commandos abandoned by the West after the Taliban took back power. Unfortunately for Putin, his humiliation has cost tens of thousands of Russian deaths and a growing crisis of confidence in his regime. The protests that greeted the outbreak of the war have become muted under the cosh of heavy policing, but the resentment of the partial mobilisation, and the inevitable turning of grief into anger is something that no regime, let alone one as decayed as Putin's, can forestall forever. It will not be molified by crude propaganda, nor by pointless punishment bombings of Ukrainian residential blocks and power stations. In Russian history, war has had the tendency of being the midwife of revolution. Putin beware.

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Thursday 10 November 2022

Andain - Beautiful Things (Gabriel & Dresden Unplugged Mix)

No time for writing tonight, but there's always room for dancing. Enjoy this understated down tempo cut from 2003.

Tuesday 8 November 2022

A Farewell to Gavin Williamson

"On one occasion we had an MP who'd got a few financial problems, some financial help was given. It wasn't a great amount, but I do remember him asking me to give the MP in question the cheque and he waved it under my nose and says: "Make sure when you give him this cheque he knows that I now own him."" In a party of horrors, Gavin Williamson stood out as someone who revelled in the dark arts. Having watched too many episodes of the original House of Cards, he took to the role of chief whip with the enthusiasm of a live action role player. Tory watchers will remember his spreadsheet of MPs and their alleged sexual peccadilloes, that accidentally on purpose got leaked and has circulated in the ether ever since. You might also recall the dead tarantula he kept in his office to lend his operation a sinister aspect. And so news about his recent past behaviour, which included bullying senior civil servants and, as per the story above from ex deputy whip Anne Milton came as no surprise. He cosplayed as chief whip as he served as chief whip, and loved it. However, this self-styled master operator forgot that the enemies you make on the way up will still be your enemies on the way down, and all this week they've lobbed enough artillery shells to crater his career for the third time and forced him from office.

In Williamson's resignation letter, he's "stepping back from government" because the allegations, which he "refutes" (does politics abuse any other word as much?) are proving to be a distraction from what's Sunak's trying to achieve. For his pains as Minister Without Portfolio for a couple of weeks, Williamson can expect £18k in severance. Nice work if you can get it. But as these stories have been circulating among the lobby hacks for a long time, surely Williamson knew there were hostages to fortune out there. Why tempt fate by accepting a front bench position knowing his past would catch up with him? Vanity? The idea he'd muddle through, like Boris Johnson had done so many times?

It also turns out Rishi Sunak knew about these allegations, but appointed him all the same. Just like giving Suella Braverman's a job, Sunak's judgement was found somewhat wanting. Whereas for Braverman it was a grubby deal that underlined his cluelessness, for Williamson this was a reward for helping his leadership campaign. As significant sections of the press, including on the right, are going for the Tories because of how politically dysfunctional they've become Sunak should have had the wit to realise they would bite and continue worrying his government until a Williamson-sized chunk got torn off. His career is over for the third time, and there's more egg on the Prime Minister's face.

Unfortunately for Sunak, it doesn't end there. Having got Williamson's scalp, the attention switches back to Braverman. She and her boss intend on riding it out because, unfortunately, as the press have ramped up the anti-immigration coverage some polling has demonstrated support for the Home Secretary's remarks when she denounced the south coast "invasion" in the Commons last week. She's useful for the racist divide and conquer cards the Tories play when they're conquered. But by the same token, her flouting of national security rules and legal probity make her a huge liability where the security state is concerned. And so the press will keep the assault up, knowing that her career is ripe for the taking and that, unlike his predecessors, Sunak needs to heed the power of the papers.

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Monday 7 November 2022

Taking the Labour Right to Court

When is enough, enough? In the lead up to Sam Tarry's deselection, reports of dirty tricks were legion. But ultimately, nothing came of the complaints his team made against them. While Apsana Begum was out of action following harassment in her local party led by her ex-husband's family, the London regional bureaucracy turned a blind eye as her reselection was forced through. And now it's Ian Byrne's turn. Despite winning MP of the year from the Patchwork foundation in recognition of his campaigning, the Labour right want him out. And it's the same old tricks. "Lost" invitations to branch nomination meetings, the outright exclusion of Byrne supporters, and now the revoking of Byrne's access to the local membership list. Every low level shenanigan available to the petty fixer is getting employed.

This is inseparable from a concerted effort by the Labour right to lock the left out of the parliamentary party. They don't always get their way, as the reselection of Faiza Shaheen in Chingford and Woodford Green shows. Then again, what is one selection against a score of left wingers who've been disposed of for dubious reasons? She's the exception that proves the rule. As Patrick Maguire points out in his Times piece, Keir Starmer is unconcerned - he's largely contracted the purging and the brutality out to the creatures for whom sharp practices are the definition of sharp politics. And the Labour right can get away with it. There's no Corbynite surge on the horizon threatening to sweep them away. On the contrary, as tens of thousands of leftists have quit and continue to quit, the stitching up jobs of self-styled Tammany Hall-types gets easier.

The right also rely on something else: a certain acquiescence of the Labour left. They reckon, not unreasonably, that the left won't rock the boat too much. The fact trade union leaders, even the left wing ones, aren't saying or doing much publicly as their affiliated branch endorsements get rebuffed for flimsy and/or undisclosed reasons. True, the CWU's Dave Ward has two crucial disputes occupying his time, and Sharon Graham has been clear that her priority is industrial action, not pissing around with internal Labour matters. But still. And the second is court action. Bringing the courts into labour movement matters has long been taboo. Because our organisations were built by the hard graft of our people in the face of bitter opposition, this is good grounds for not letting bewigged members of the ruling class adjudicate on our internal matters. That is a labour movement competency alone. But the Labour right have consistently and with great success relied on this taboo to get away with the most egregious rule breaking. As we know, the party rule book is enforced by the right. It never applies to them. However, the court taboo broken in the Corbyn years. Elements of the right supported a court challenge to keep Jeremy Corbyn off the second leadership ballot. And when the NEC changed the rules over who could vote in the election, some Corbyn supporters launched their own action. In both cases they were doomed to failure as the party's leading lay body acted entirely within its competency. Neither were successful, but the caution against using courts to settle disputes died with the cases.

Therefore, Ian Byrne's announcement that he's gathering materials for a legal challenge is a welcome one. From a mainstream melty, centrist point of view how can a party that hopes to be the lawful government of the land be cavalier about the breaking of its own rules? But from a leftist standpoint, given how the party treats its own rules as optional depending on the politics of those on the receiving end, there is a legal case to be heard. As argued previously, the degeneration of Labour Party structures into something akin to feudal patronage means a dashing of bourgeois law might be a step forward. In the absence of anything else, why not? If a day in court means shining light on party nepotism and hypocrisy, that could hardly be regarded as a bad thing. If Ian goes down this path, good luck to him. Enforcing proper due process across the party would be a big win for the left.

But there's something else of interest going on here. A side note of internal politics. As the North West region is home to Angela Rayner, Andy Burnham, and Steve Rotheram - three not inconsiderable party figures who have endorsed Ian Byrne's reselection, the fact dirty tricks are getting fielded against someone they support either suggests their backing is a cynical tilt to the left for movement kudos, or as is more likely their writ in the region doesn't run as far as it might. Admittedly, because Bryne won his 2019 selection by the tightest of margins - three votes if memory recalls - the contest would likely be tight without the right's attempts to fix the results. But if these two powerful Labour politicians can't knock the shenanigans on the head, what hope do either of them have in running successful future leadership campaigns if sections of the apparat can defy them with impunity?

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Sunday 6 November 2022

First Contact: An Alien Encounter

What kind of moment would the confirmation of extra-terrestrial intelligence be? This was the premise of an (ostensibly) intriguing First Contact: An Alien Encounter the BBC aired this week. Unfortunately, as a work of scientific speculation it failed to live up to the exciting proposition because it committed the cardinal sin. The show was boring.

First Contact begins with one of the Voyager probes picking up a narrow band signal, which is a sure sign of an artificial origin. The scenario then plays out over 12 days as the source is revealed to be a 200km-long object approaching the solar system. Oh dear. Grainy images are obtained of 'The Artefact' and it appears artificial in character. Spectroscopy readings shows metals, but the craft is seemingly tumbling in space and out of control. The boffins get to work on tracing its fight path and settle on a star system some 500 light years away, implying the craft had been in transit for over 100,000 years. No wonder it's not taking any messages. NASA direct the new James Webb Space Telescope at the system and finds evidence of a shredded planet, but with traces of manufactured materials showing up in the analysis. Meanwhile, the Artefact sails past the Earth and away. First contact is over.

The story could have been told in a 10 minute YouTube video if I'm honest. But the main purpose was to show off the science, and was therefore seemingly aimed more at a general audience. SETI's infamous Wow signal from 1977 gets its umpteenth showcase. It too was a narrow band signal and was much stronger than the background noise, and it (apparently) moved with the stars - as you would expect anything inbound to - but that was it. The best candidate for contact so far, but it has never repeated. Nor has it been satisfactorily explained by earth-bound or natural celestial phenomena. The question mark remains and may never be resolved. We're also told about how difficult it would be to communicate with aliens anyway, given how different our environments, biologies, and psychologies are likely to be. Just look at our miserable efforts at trying to establish a dialogue with whales(!). And we had to have a wee segment on ╩╗Oumuamua, the first identified extra-solar object that passed by these parts in 2017. What the show skipped over were claims, such as those coming from Harvard's Avi Loeb, suggesting it could be an artificial object.

Surprisingly, while First Contact was humdrum and not a good way to fill 85 minutes it did at least get the sociology right. As noted a while ago, chances are news of an alien civilisation would perturb the froth of social media for a day or two and fade from view. Because this premise is a close brush with some derelict spaceship things are likely to be different. People lighting candles, American shock jocks forecasting armageddon, little kids hoping the aliens would be friendly, talking heads arguing the toss. Social media getting rammed with little green men memes was definitely on the money. And then we have people rioting because they suspected governments were concealing knowledge was a bit of a stretch. Then again, who could have foreseen anti-mask/anti-vax protests as a global pandemic ripped through the population?

When all is said and done, it's difficult to see who this programme was made for. Anyone slightly interested in the topic would be caning the YouTube videos already, and the casual channel surfer wouldn't have found something compelling enough to stick with. Science programming does get a lot of flack, and rightly so given how plodding and simplistic the output tends to be. I can't imagine anyone young watching this and feeling inspired enough to pick up a telescope, which surely is the criteria by which any flight of speculative fancy should be judged.

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Saturday 5 November 2022

The Tory Politics of Small Statism

"The state can't fix all your problems". With this statement, Rishi Sunak has declared the Tories are returning entirely to type. The brief experiment with Tory modernisation is over, and the clock is wound back to 22nd June 2016. Another round of cuts are coming, and a contrived fiscal crisis of state is being used to push politics back to the right. The contradiction at the heart of Boris Johnson's administration was exploded by Liz Truss and is now getting consolidated by Sunak.

A trip down memory lane. Politics has been a traumatic experience and especially so for our establishments. In 2014 the UK state sailed close to the wind of breaking up. In 2015, the official party of liberalism imploded and socialism, having been asleep as a mass force since the Poll Tax rebellion, surged. In 2016 the double disasters of Brexit and Trump struck. 2017 saw the impossible and Labour surge in votes and seats when so-called professional opinion had written it off. 2018 and 2019 were endless engagements in the Brexit wars, with the Tories emerging triumphant at the end. And just as we were hoping for a respite in 2020, Covid hit and the purview of the state expanded massively to keep the economy and people's livelihoods going. This tumultuous period, which we haven't left yet, were and are characterised by big ideas and high stakes. In Scotland the SNP and in England and Wales Corbynism showed political alternatives were possible, and the Tories adapted to the mood. Outside Number 10, Theresa May talked about her one nation Toryism. And when Johnson won his Brexit election, his levelling up wheeze was the logical heir to what went before - with Dominic Cummings brought in to drive an authoritarian modernisation of the state.

This is not natural territory for modern Tories. For the Margaret Thatcher and John Major governments, their objective was putting socialism in a box and keeping the lid closed. Their party had not adapted itself to a popular Labour agenda since Winston Churchill signed them up to the post-war compromise in the late 1940s. Markets, privatisation, and law and order was all Tory governments could and should offer. Jeremy Corbyn's two leadership elections and the unexpected (and unwelcome) 2017 result tore a hole in this reality. It could not be ignored and had to be headed off. Arguably, the peak of Corbyn's impact on the Tories was felt after Johnson had administered the electoral coup de grace when they unceremoniously and without credit lifted the left's programme for mitigating Covid. Seeing a Tory government abolish homelessness, increase social security above inflation, and paying people to stay at home wasn't on anyone's 2020 bingo card. It definitely wasn't on Sunak's, and Johnson - despite being chill about state intervention - was very uncomfortable with this level of support. As soon as they felt they could get away with it, return to work messages were pushed out, the formal end of the Job Guarantee Scheme announced, the homeless were put back on the streets, benefits were cut back and the sanctions regime returned. The emergency could not be allowed to undermine the economic compulsion to work.

This is where the agreement between Johnson and Sunak ended. As noted here many times, the levelling programme such as it was got watered down repeatedly, becoming little more than pork barrelling at best and vapour at worse. And at the heart of the resistance to Johnson, those responsible for this incoherence, was Sunak and the Treasury. How they justified their opposition is largely immaterial. The consequence was a concerted Tory effort at reducing the capacity of the state just as Johnson, Michael Gove and before his departure, Cummings, were repairing and remodelling it. The outcome has been the ongoing decrepitude of the public realm and the ability of the state to do things. Especially simple things, like tax collecting, ordering a passport, and expecting an ambulance to turn up were significantly eroded while Johnson got on his modernisation shtick.

This had political effects too. It's quite simple. If the state can't deliver basic functions, then no one is going to place demands on it. What you might call nice things but are routine in equivalent countries, like cheap but good quality public transport and decent state pensions, can never be delivered because the state can't be trusted to do anything. If this becomes the common sense, even the mildly social democratic gruel offered by Keir Starmer is a banquet government can neither afford nor organise, and is fantastical to the point of it can never happening. Again, whether Sunak thinks of it likes this or clings to dreams of a small state, the effect is the same. A closure of political space and the attempted founding a new status quo on state incompetence.

As it happens, Truss was fully signed up to this view as well. Except her mistake was to go all in, believing public opinion was behind her own prejudices against the state (which, by complete coincidence, were shared by the hedge funds she was closely aligned to). Unfortunately for Truss, she forgot that crashing the economy upset just about every other section of Tory party support. When a Conservative leader becomes dysfunctional for almost the entirety of British capital, as happened in this case, their political life is not destined to be a long one. For his part, while Sunak is politically clumsy and prone to mistakes, on this he has been consistent and patient. He chipped away at the furlough scheme to which he owes any positive regard he has left, and subsequently only offering support - as per his earlier energy price freeze - when it was absolutely politically necessary to do something. Truss didn't want the state to offer anything, and was completely open about it. Sunak wants to be in the same position, but it is something to be achieved more gradually and with a bit more craft.

Which brings us up to date. In his Times interview, the Prime Minister alluded to some limited help for mortgage holders caught in the backwash from Trussonomics. But by being "honest" about how the state is suffering a budgetary shortfall, Sunak and Jeremy Hunt are looking at cutting the public sector more devaluing benefits and the state pension under the guise of necessity and hoping enough will swallow it as per the Tory messaging before and after the 2010 election. But none of this is regretful, done with a heavy heart or, heaven forfend, is a tough choice. Shutting down the capacity of the state undermines the faith in politics to do good, useful things. If that is eroded, Labour are likely to cleave to this "common sense" and keep to the new rules of the game. Sunak isn't likely to lead the Tories to victory, but if his opponents' room for manoeuvre can be circumscribed in advance he will, as far as the Tories' ruling class support is concerned, have rendered them a useful service.