Friday 30 December 2022

The Rights and Wrongs of 2022

A few years ago I learned a lesson. Having predicted Labour would win in 2015, that Remain would come out top in the EU referendum, and that Donald Trump would be defeated by Hillary Clinton, I gave up the New Year Nostradamus act. But in reality, I never stopped making forecasts about politics. The whole shtick of this blog is to analyse the present to grasp the likely trajectories of politics in the hope it will inform leftist strategy and practice in this country. And you know what, as everyone has taken to social media to burnish their finest contributions to the discourse it's fair to say, given how things have played out, much of what I've written about over the last few years have come to fruition. But to err is human, and there are a couple of things I got wrong as well. This post is me blowing my own trumpet, followed by a few toots on the sad trombone.

The biggest, of course, is the centrepiece of my book and the mainstay of this blog: the long-term decline of the Tories. Just over a year ago, one of its reviewers dismissed it as wishful thinking. In 2022 the arguments came home to roost. The central thesis, that property acquisition is breaking down and therefore destroying the basis of the political reproduction of mass conservatism, assisted by the decline of social conservatism and the rise of social liberalism as a class cohort effect, and how gluing together the Tory coalition of mostly older, property-owning people demands attacks on working age and younger people has been increasingly obvious since the Coalition years. Indeed, Boris Johnson's 2019 triumph was the argument's mic drop moment, not its refutation. However, the precise pattern of this decline, which I have been suggesting was starting to bite since Labour did unexpectedly well in 2017, could not be mapped out in advance. The Tories were never going to level up because it clashed too sharply with the priorities of briefcase Toryism and the needs of their base, and so the long slog to oblivion was locked in. As things stood, even with Johnson as leader, 2024 would be a much harder election than the one previous without the scandals of Party Gate and his own obvious corruption and dissolute behaviour. And if Johnson quickened the rot, Liz Truss enthusiastically pumped the poison round the Tory body politic to bring one a cardiac arrest. It was like John Major in reverse, the drawn out destruction of one Prime Minister's authority followed up by completely unforced Black Wednesday cosplaying - just over 30 years on from the original event. Rishi Sunak may have steadied the ship, but taking on so many striking workers can only hasten his party's decline.

Therefore, three related pieces on the specifics of the Tories' trajectory have come to pass. A year ago, Truss was tipped as the next leader and her approach to politics characterised as "the promise of handbagging the world and making it conform to a reheated Thatcherism." Reader, it was she and the British economy that got the handbagging. And second, the tensions explored in Johnson's cabinet over his levelling up failures and, particularly, the active desire of Sunak et al to not do anything to dampen expectations and therefore demands made of politics became the dominant strand in Tory ruling circles once Johnson was tossed out the window. Truss and Sunak offered variants of the same. The former brash and reckless, the latter more cautious and subtle and had been burrowing away at state capacity from the very moment Covid forced government to take emergency measures. Sunak's statecraft is the culmination of the class politics of government shoulder shrugging. On the topic of the same, having announced the withdrawal of any and all mitigation measures, we're dealing with the consequences. "Self-responsibility" has meant tens of millions think Covid has gone away or that they have some residual immunity to it, as if the disease is like measles. These vibes are entirely the Tories' fault for scrapping all public health messaging, and refusing to spell out the fact it attacks the immune system and can store up medium and long-term difficulties, even if the most immediate experience it is the sniffles and a light fever. And the consequences are plain to see: collapsing A&Es exacerbated by 12 years of defunding as the Covid afflicted fill departments up, and millions coming down with "bad colds" and other illnesses that prey on weakened immune systems. 10 months ago, I wrote "we are in a damnable situation with those in charge caring for everything but mitigating the mass casualty event we continue to live through." Nothing has changed. Hundreds continue to die unnecessarily. Tens of thousands are newly debilitated by serious, long-term illness that need not be.

I've got a bit of a claim to make about Keir Starmer as well. Unfortunately, most left takes on Starmer treat him as no different to a Tory and that's all that needs be said, or that he is a moustache-twirling villain who's the baddie to Jeremy Corbyn's goodie. To be opposed to Starmer means taking him seriously, and just like the Tories it's useful for left and labour movement people to know what his politics are about and what his trajectory is so we can take advantage of any openings and prepare for incoming attacks. It's ABC socialist politics. The analysis first ventured in February 2021, that Starmerism is a politics about state management and restitution of legitimacy in its institutions, has been borne out by Starmer's strategy ever since. His attitude to trade unionism smacks of it, and his recent commitment to constitutional reform confirms it. This is bourgeois politics, but a one different to that offered by the Tories. It has it own opportunities and threats for the labour movement, and we need to be ready for them.

On wrong things, there have been a few mistakes along the way. There's this analysis of Labour's local election performance which, I think, was right at the time but - particularly in the south - has been superseded by events. Albeit with caveats. In early August, I thought about how Liz Truss could pose a threat to Labour. I'd have been better spending my time chasing the cat around the house. I suppose the most egregious mistake was doubting the seriousness of Putin's posturing over Ukraine. In mitigation, plenty of Russia watchers made the same bad take. For once, the public briefings released by the US and UK governments were right. But, making up for the initial mistake the following analysis of state decrepitude has been confirmed by the course of the war, both in terms of Russia's stupid brutality and battlefield reverses, and has humiliated of Putin on the world stage. With any luck, this time next year he'll be in a war crimes court.

2022 has been a complex year, of so-called "poly-crisis". And this seems more concentrated and badly borne in the UK. The demise of the Tories, the stirrings of Starmerism's hegemony over establishment politics, and how both respond (or, in the Tories' case, don't) to the emergencies presenting as a grim version of whack-a-mole are going to be the main subjects covered by this blog next year. What a jolly thought. See you in 2023!

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1729torus said...

I haven't had the pleasure of reading your book yet, but out of curiosity, did your analysis consider the fact that the Tory electoral coalition will decline more rapidly as it grows older?

I remember arguing on Irish political forums back in 2014 that Ulster Unionism would face its demographic reckoning starting around 2022; that the DUP were naively extrapolating the census results from the 1990s to 2011, which was leading them to erroneously believe they could defer painful changes until 2030. I seem to have done well so far.

Demographics is so slow moving you can get decent accuracy out of what would otherwise be shockingly crude forecasting methods so long as you don't try to predict more than 10 years into the future and you don't do anything stupid. The DUP's obnoxiousness made things even easier, no need to worry that your predictions might be invalidated by them somehow recruiting loads of younger voters.

Phil said...

I didn't talk about how quickly their demographic would evaporate - there seemed so much more to write about at the time, especially establishing the veracity of the argument in the first place!

You're totally right about the DUP and have argued along roughly similar lines on the few occasions this blog looks across the Irish Sea.