Monday 27 February 2023

The Triumph Before the Tragedy

Rishi Sunak is probably the most politically flat-footed Prime Minister since ... Liz Truss. But not everything has to be 4D chess. Simple crudity can and does work. In selling his Northern Ireland Brexit deal, there were two very clumsy, clod-hopping moves that made Gordon Brown look the picture of subtlety. We had Sunak's address in the Commons this evening. Showing an uncharacteristic appreciation of his backbenchers and their peccadilloes, he sold his deal with the EU as an exercise in cutting red tape. The successful conclusion of the negotiations, he said, deleted 1,700 pages of EU law. That sounds good to them, and looks good if you want to style out the rest of this calamitous Tory government as something of a "reformer" who doused hundreds and hundreds of regulations in petrol.

The second was a bit too much on the nose, even for Sunak. We noted yesterday the aborted weekend meeting between the King and EU president Ursula von der Leyen, and how Brexiteers and the DUP cried themselves a river over it. Associating the King with the deal was an obvious attempt at emotional blackmail against two political tendencies who define themselves in relation to the Crown. It was therefore not enough for the tea and tiffin to actually go ahead this Monday afternoon. To almost dare them to vote against the deal it has now been christened the 'Windsor Framework'.

What a clunker of a strategy, but it seems to have worked. Most of the Brexity voices have made emollient noises, with the ERG promising to look carefully at the text of the deal. Even the DUP aren't united in intransigence. Boris Johnson, who kept the running sore of the Northern Ireland Protocol open purely for political posturing purposes has kept a low profile and chose to stay away from the Commons. He's decided not to lead an assault on the deal. With Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps the SNP all backing the Prime Minister, the Tory right, who've been flexing of late might not choose this as their hill to stand on either. Sunak, therefore, has the first genuine triumph of his premiership. And one that, ultimately, will do nothing to save his government.

Sunday 26 February 2023

Brexit Vs the Northern Ireland Protocol

Towards the end of his time as Prince of Wales, the King said he would be politically impartial and aloof as per convention when he became monarch. More than a few Westminster eyebrows were raised when he was scheduled to meet EU president Ursula von der Leyen this weekend. Because coincidences don't happen in politics, several Brexiteers were quick to cry foul. According to the Daily Mail, the DUP and Jacob Rees-Mogg protested the King's meeting at the juncture of advanced talks between the UK and the EU set on resolving the Northern Ireland Protocol quagmire. They're right to have picked up something fishy. With all the subtlety of a brick through a constituency office window, facing opposition from his backbenches Rishi Sunak knows associating the King with whatever deal they cook up will make it harder for the Brexit ultras and DUP to vote against.

Nevertheless, news of advanced talks and the seeming likelihood of a resolution marks a clean break with Boris Johnson's handling of the mess. For starters, he was primarily responsible for it. Recalling the turbulent parliamentary year of 2019, after making a song and dance about Theresa May's efforts to secure a deal with the EU, Johnson was able to cobble something together that bore more than a passing resemblance to the document he resigned from May's cabinet over. The UK would leave the EU's customs area in its entirety, except the small print said that while an EU/UK land border lies along the line between the north and the Republic for the purposes of the deal it would move into the Irish Sea. This customs frontier meant goods from the UK mainland passing into the North would be liable for customs charges if they carried a risk of heading south. Bear in mind this deal was supposed to be an insurance policy, the terms of which the UK and EU would default to if a proper trade deal between the two was not secured. In typical slapdash fashion, Johnson didn't care about the detail of the deal. It was done, he could slap "oven ready" on it, and worry about it after winning a general election.

31st January, 2020 comes and we're outside the EU. The UK immediately moves into the transitional period where little to nothing changes. It's the holding pattern until a new trading partnership is negotiated. However, in February the Tories signalled they would be approaching the coming negotiations as a zero sum game. Having seen how Brexit brinkmanship benefited their electoral fortunes, talking up the talks as a battle of plucky Britain versus the combined might of Europe was yet more cynical games playing. While outlines of a draft trade deal were quick to emerge, by the summer talks had stalled and the UK was threatening to walk away if the EU persisted with the Northern Ireland Protocol. Indeed, the government announced it was introducing a UK internal markets bill which, while sounding dry on the surface, amounted to unilaterally altering the withdrawal agreement. It conceded it was preparing to break the law in a "very specific and limited way". This was the usual Johnson theatre, and therefore Downing Street greeted the election of Joe Biden with some dismay. Johnson believed the promise of a quick trade deal with the United States would give him leverage in the talks, and that was on the cards if Donald Trump had won re-election. Furthermore, given the pro-Irish component of American politics, Johnson was aware brinkmanship and threats towards Ireland were no longer consequence-free.

The talks were not looking good, and in December Johnson was talking about an Australian as opposed to a Canadian-style relationship with the EU. I.e. A euphemism for a no-deal scenario. Yet a deal was finally struck on Christmas Eve. It was a poor agreement that erected more bureaucracy, and particularly hammered the UK's efforts at selling services into the EU. A disaster considering the sector comprised 80% of GDP. The language about regulatory divergence covered for the fact £650bn of annual trade with the EU was bound up with conforming to its standards. As far as Northern Ireland was concerned, the new trade deal looked an awful lot like the withdrawal agreement. The UK still could not freely sell goods into one part of its territory, and the new rules governing UK/EU trade solidified it. Disruptions to the flow of goods under this arrangement were described by Johnson as "teething troubles", and the long and interminable negotiations about the implementation of the Protocol started in earnest after it came into force. Matters weren't helped by the DUP and their unwillingness to make it work. They boycotted talks, attempted to use the courts to block the Protocol, and shrugged their shoulders as loyalist areas erupted with violence. The resignation of Arlene Foster and her replacement by Edwin Poots gets off to a great start as he threatens to suspend checks on goods coming from the UK, making the agreement unworkable. This proved to be an empty threat as within two months of Foster's departure he was gone.

For the remainder of the year, EU threats of legal action and Downing Street threats of unilateral action meant the unsteady status quo persisted. Fast forward to the Assembly elections, and because of Northern Ireland's peculiar status its economy was actually outperforming the rest of the UK. Johnson's hasty approach to deal making was laying the material basis for unification, and loyalism was stuck on an existential cliff's edge. Remaining in the UK is its raison d'etre, but how can it retain mass support if loyalty to king and country means making its community poorer? Small wonder they fractured and we're in the absurd situation of having Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill in position as First Minister-in-waiting. As far as Johnson was concerned, the moment demanded more brinkmanship and on 13th June the government published its Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which in UK law would grant ministers powers to set aside the treaty and implement new rules. Never mind this would contravene international law, jeopardise trade with the EU, and undermine the UK's ability to sign future deals with other countries. The passing of the Bill into the committee stage saw the EU begin legal proceedings. But with the departure of Johnson, things start cooling down. When Liz Truss enters office she says she looks forward to a reset of UK-Ireland relations. This carries on when Sunak takes over, and slow progress turns into real progress, to the point where we are today with resolution in sight.

What the Brexit ultras and the DUP fear, and what is likely to be struck with the EU, is some sort of confirmation of the status quo. A characteristic Johnsonian fudge has now governed UK trade into Northern Ireland for two years, and the relatively light touch controls have suited both sides of the border ensuring the disruption of Brexit has been mitigated. Affirming what is with a new range of oversight mechanisms, scopes for further talks and so on, locks a part of the UK into the EU, which limits the prospects of regulatory divergence. It makes a nonsense of the entire Brexit prospectus and will underline the argument frequently made by the remain camp, of the UK's transition from a rule maker to a rule taker outside the EU. It will make the UK look weak, and where the responsibility for this state of affairs lies is very clear. And, like the DUP, the Brexiteers worry what it's doing to the union. For Johnson it's just another issue he can use to remind the media that he still exists and will do politics in between his busy, lucrative speaking schedule. But for Sunak, it would be a real coup. With nothing much going for the Tories in the polls, a victory for sensible briefcase Toryism might turn some floating voter heads - especially those who like their "grown ups". The problem he has if should he get this through, the right of the party are going to become even more ungovernable. Especially if it only passes the Commons with Labour votes. For once, Sunak is doing the right thing. And it could prematurely end his premiership.

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Saturday 25 February 2023

Sybil, or The Two Nations

"I would like my portrait to depict me with pimples, warts and everything." These words uttered by the Lord Protector could equally apply to Sybil, or The Two Nations, the celebrated 1845 novel by (then) future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It's true this place has little time for Conservatism as a philosophy save its rhetorical commitment to pragmatism, but in its One Nation manifestations it still gets taken out for a tour around public discourse. Boris Johnson perhaps being the Tory leader who talks about it more than most. But in his hands it's meaningless piffle, a few leaves and garnish to the verbose word salad he serves up in his speeches. Yet Sybil, which is widely regarded as the inspiration for one nation conservatism (despite the phrase not appearing in its pages), isn't a paean to warm beer and maids riding in the mist. It is a warning.

Readers are more likely to be familiar with Engels's reporting in The Condition of the Working Class in England. Disraeli's fictionalisation, which was published in the same year, is no less sparing in his portrayal of the poverty and degradation of workers. Both men were as outraged. However, while Disraeli depicts the misery he also goes all out on the glamour. The early part of the book is littered with an enthusiastic description of the parliamentary shenanigans of 200 plus years ago, and the opulence of the gentry with their kinships and Austenian matchmaking. It's in stark contrast to the destitution and humiliation visited on the many, hence the two nations. In a conversation with Charles Egremont, the novel's old Etonian hero, it's put to him that,
Yes ... Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws. (Oxford edition, p.60)
Yet Disraeli never gets preachy. The titular Sybil is the daughter of Walter Gerard, a Chartist who goes on to play a leading role in the petitioning of parliament. For Gerard and other Chartist activists, Disraeli sympathetically and accurately narrates their complaints and demands, and shows an understanding of why the radical elements of the movement were driven to violence. Would you ever expect a 21st century Tory to show a similar understanding of the workers' plight today? When Gerard is arrested because the government believes the Chartist Convention is hatching a rising in London, Disraeli, to invert John Major's famous phrase, is interested in understanding a little more and condemning a little less.

Egremont, as the "spare" to the Marney family titles embodies the patricianism now associated with old-style Toryism. He goes out among the people in his district, and when he's "elected" to the Commons he uses his position to speak up for workers' grievances and presses for their inclusion in the commonwealth. During his travels, he meets with and strikes up a friendship with Gerard and, as per a couple more male characters, falls in love with Sybil. Disraeli describes her in possession of heart stopping beauty, which reflects the angelic innocence of her character. Having been brought up by nuns she spends much of her time at cloisters with a view to entering a convent, but shares her father's politics and sees herself as a daughter of labour. She too goes among the people and does charitable works. When the inevitable declaration of intent comes from Egremont, she rebuffs him because the gulf is too wide between them.

Sybil is not a story of love trumping class location, however. Sybil is somewhat removed from the social setting because of her religious affiliations. This affords her critical distance and she becomes distressed when she sees her father moving in a more radical direction. Her faith inclines Sybil to solidarity and taking up the lot of her own people, but not the violent prosecution of their claims. In this, her political journey is on a trajectory to meet Egremont's. But it's events and tragedy, not ethical commitments, that bring about their union.

Throughout the Chartist cause is pressured by radicalism, but we find extremism on the other side too. Egremont's elder brother, the Lord Marney has little time for the little people. They are slovenly, care-free and, in many ways, have it better than aristocrats like him who are responsible for running estates and attending the rounds of social functions. Poverty is a myth and simultaneously good for them, as extra money will only cause drunkenness, debauchery, and laziness. Disraeli also introduces us to the angry petit bourgeoisie. The Diggs', a father-and-son operation own a few fields and lord it over the local populace through their shop. While the men are down the pit, their wives and sometimes children are forced to humiliate themselves in the lines for their store. Joseph Diggs Jr is particularly brutal, enjoying his station as a tyrant over these women, insulting them, causing them to beg for credit, and jumping in among them with a belt and whip to thrash them. He's indifferent when he puts out the eye of a customer's baby. Ditto for when among them a young boy is found to have been crushed by the stampede away from his blows. The Diggs are not fully fleshed out by Disraeli, but serve as another aspect of the injustice that degrades the life of the poor.

Disraeli's lesson manifests in the rising towards the end. A mob is whipped up into a frenzy under the leadership of a corpulent bishop who styles himself the "Liberator". They rampage through the countryside with the intent of firing factories and farms where the general strike he called is not being observed. For example, the mob stop by the Diggs's shop where they're fired upon by Joseph jr armed with a blunderbuss. In retaliation, they set his building on fire and he's seen perishing in the flames clutching his ledger with the records of all his debtors. Later, at another factory the crowd are halted by an impassioned speech by Gerard, who had earned their respect for his Chartist work and serving time for the cause. He assured them the workers there were on strike, and diverted the mob to one of the nearby estates. The bishop fancies liberating the wine cellar of its contents and they make haste to the big house. It happens that Sybil is there and she and the resident family are terrorised as the mob storms the stairs, take the library, and force themselves into the cellar. Sybil escapes as Egremont and an attachment of yeomanry under his command arrive and drive off the mob. But not before fire consumes the house's lower reaches, and the bishop and his band of sodden lieutenants greet their demise in a haze of insensible drunkenness. Meanwhile, away from the scene the crowd are dispersing when they're attacked by Lord Marney's yeomanry. He fires and kills Gerard, who was merely present. Seeing their leader dead, the mob is reignited and they tear him off his horse and bludgeon him to death.

Months later with the dust settled, everything has come good. With his older brother dead and childless, Egremont inherits the title. And following the recovery of title deeds in one of the book's sub-plots, Sybil is declared blue-blooded and no longer has any hesitancy marrying her Etonian darling. A couple of Chartist allies of Gerard trade in their radicalism and become successful capitalists. Disraeli's message? Class division with its cruelties and inequalities can only lead to mutual ruin if not ameliorated. The deaths of Diggs, Lord Marney, and Gerard demonstrate the zero-sum nature of social conflict. Wise rulers and voices of moderation are not exciting, but they are the best bets for social peace. And when barriers from above and below are cleared, even the most resolute of radicals can become successful in conventional terms and achieve respectability. It's exclusion that breeds disaffection and rebellion. Disraeli here is anticipating, by 150 years, the New Labour discourse around inclusion and exclusion. A discourse that still dominates discussions about "social mobility" and "aspiration". Here, Disraeli is suggesting the war between above and below can be averted if common sense prevails - that legitimate grievances be dealt with, but within the bounds of a law that mutually protects the haves and the have nots.

As limited and as distorting of politics this is, if the Tories want to have a future beyond the catastrophe the polls are expecting, going back to Disraeli and heeding his warnings about stoking two nation politics is a necessity. But One Nation politics and meaning it appears well beyond the ken of today's Conservative Party, and that is why the fall, when it comes, will prove itself unsparing.

Friday 24 February 2023

Local Council By-Elections February 2023

This month saw 26,947 votes cast in 14 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Eight council seats changed hands. For comparison with January's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Feb 22
Lib Dem

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There were three by-elections in Wales
*** There was one Independent clash
**** Others in February consisted of Alba (178), Christian People's Alliance (93), Reform (85), Rejoin (99), Scottish Family Party (60)

Another bad month for the Tories. Unexpectedly picking up a seat from Labour in Denbighshire is small consolation for hammerings almost everywhere else. The vote tally really flatters them as the crisis carries on biting into the government's performance in the polls. Significant moments on the list below is probably Labour's taking out the Tories in Aberdeen. Some cheer for those who think the SNP are beyond the pail given they topped first preferences, but it underlines what we already know from Scottish polling: the Tories are third place in Scotland and have lost out badly to Labour.

Also notable was the Green victory in Bristol, which significantly increases their chance of taking Thangham Debbonaire's seat and returning their second MP when the time comes. But everywhere else the Lib Dems recovered after January's blip and did the bulk of the month's Tory bashing. Hence why I think they'll do better at the next election than polls are suggesting.

Next month there are 17 contests to look forward to, but luckily for the Tories they're defending just five of them. So even if they lose everything it won't look disastrously embarrassing.

2nd February
Bristol, Hotwells & Harbourside, Grn gain from LDem
North Northamptonshire, Northall, Lab gain from Con
Torfaen, Llantarnam, Ind hold

9th February
Cheltenham, Battledown, LDem gain from Con
Dartford, Wilmington, Sutton-at-Hone & Hawley, Con hold
Denbighshire, Rhyl Ty Newydd, Con gain from Lab
Hertfordshire, Hitchin North, Lab hold
North Yorkshire, Masham & Fountains, LDem gain from Con

16th February
Barnet, Golders Green, Con hold
Cambridgeshire, St Neots The Eatons, LDem gain from Ind
Cornwall, Long Rock, Marazion & St Erth, LDem gain from Con
Sefton, Netherton & Orrell, Lab hold

23rd February
Aberdeen, Dyce, Bucksburn & Danestone, Lab gain from Con
Wrexham, Smithfield, Plaid Cymru hold

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Thursday 23 February 2023

On "Trusting" Keir Starmer

Why undertake one mission when five will do? Speaking in Manchester on Thursday morning, Keir Starmer set out his plan to transform Britain. For a politician not normally associated with excitement and exuberance, by his standards the speech was soaring and ambitious. Imagine a firework display where every rocket, streamer, and fountain explodes in sparkles of grey.

It's long been argued here that "Starmerism" is a project of state modernisation, though unlike his December speech with Gordon Brown this was more philosophical, more about the vibes and contours of his government instead of specifics. His five missions - secure the highest sustained growth in the G7, build an NHS fit for the future, make Britain's streets safe, break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage, make Britain a clean energy superpower - offer a set of themes that will structure his reform programme. Anyone who has sat in corporate planning meetings making plans about plans will be familiar with the approach. Concrete policies and state money will fill in the gaps as the missions are implemented, and progress toward the missions goals will get measured along the way because, as Starmer acknowledged, none of these are quick fixes. Asked about whether it could take longer than one term, Starmer was unapologetic. Long-term thinking underpins long-term stability, and that is what the country is crying out for.

With no policies to shout about, there were some interesting remarks fleshing out what Starmer's government will look like. Having done the authoritarian hard yards on plenty of previous occasions, the talk today was of partnership. Half-inching the "what works" rhetoric from Tony Blair's past speeches, he said state spending - fully costed and accounted for, of course - would be deployed in a way to encourage more private investment. Rather than "doing stuff" to people, Starmer wanted to ensure everyone came along for the journey. That economic rejuvenation of the country's neglected cities and regions won't be top down but involves all residents in all localities. The heavy emphasis was on inclusive growth and making life better for everyone, which at times sounded like a 10 year old one nation vintage disinterred from Ed Miliband's cellar. This sounds like vacuous piffle, and undoubtedly already is written off as such by many comrades.

Given the trust issues surrounding Starmer vis a vis dumping his leadership campaign pledges and the subsequent dreadful treatment of his predecessor, it might be surprising for some that I think Starmer can be trusted to roll out his "missions". Their "vision" speaks to his managerial imagination. Can he therefore be trusted to set about reforming institutions? Yes, especially where it doesn't involve new money. And all the stuff about decentralisation, trade unions, levelling up, and long-term plans for state renovation and improvement? Also yes. Chapters in the next manifesto will appear around the missions, policies listed in them, and the first six months of a Starmer government will be a flag fluttering jamboree of mission statements and policy crusades. But this says nothing about the content. Today, the Labour leader continued his polemic against sticking plaster politics, and pointedly denounced "partnership" schemes with business where they creamed off the profits while the risks and the costs were socialised. I would be more inclined to believe Starmer's genuine intentions here were he not so determined to press ahead with using private services in the NHS. An early test before he's had a whiff of government and already the results are not looking good. Where a policy sounds radical and transformative, like the direction of travel on trade unions, watering down is to be expected.

With Labour so far ahead in the polls, received political wisdom suggests that whatever Starmer says now he will do. There is no electoral compulsion to promise things he has no intention of delivering, especially when the Tories have nothing to offer apart from more misery and scapegoating. But as far as our movement is concerned, history tells us Labour governments have to be pressed from below to make modest improvements. It's never a case of you look after the industrial sphere while we take care of the politics, as per the old Fabian assumption. On this, I can safely guarantee Starmer will be no different. Therefore, Labour are going to disappoint, but that's no reason to be despondent. It's the way of the world and we need to using our rising tide of struggle to prepare for it.

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Wednesday 22 February 2023

Heralding the Four Day Week

A very good overview of the recent pilots undertaken by a load of employers.

I'm so old, I remember a four day week without loss of pay was a key demand in most revolutionary programmes pushed by Trotskyist groups.

Monday 20 February 2023

The Tory Corporation Tax Fantasy

Who'd be Rishi Sunak? Having faced mischief from Boris Johnson over efforts to resolve the Northern Ireland Brexit mess bequeathed him, rebellion is mounting over tax. We read that Corporation Tax is the hill so many Tories want their party to die on, and they're demanding this April's scheduled rise from 19p to 25p be cancelled. Sunak finds Number 10 besieged by a trio of factions, hedge fund outriders the European Research Group, the Northern Research Group, and a new outfit set up to honour the dear departed Liz Truss. Introducing the Conservative Growth Group.

In a letter to the Prime Minister, which hasn't been made public, luminaries such as John Redwood and Jake Berry have said the increase would imperil jobs and investment. Piling in, Tory friendly bosses Rocco Forte and Tim Martin have signed up too. Methinks they have an interest to declare.

Let's think through their logic. In 2021/22, the take from Corporation Tax was £68bn. In the Tory imaginary, if companies were allowed to keep more of this money they could create more jobs, expand their businesses, and end up contributing more tax because they have grown the size of their enterprise. Lower taxes means more tax is taken. Remember Truss's annoying stress on "growing the pie" during the Tory leadership contest? (Do pies even grow?) Sounds elegant, if not commonsensical. It's also complete bollocks.

As a percentage of the economy, business investment has, since 1995, been around the 18%-19% mark with significant dips in 2009 (14.9%) and 2020 (17.3%). In other words, the proportion of GDP as private investment in jobs and growth has remained virtually static for 30 years, despite Corporation Tax falling over the same period from 33% to 19%. The Tory vibes don't match the figures, completely refuting - note the correct use of the word 'refute' - their justification keeping the tax at historic low levels. Instead, what capital as a collective have done is sit on its hands, refusing to invest in productivity and new business, and has continued to feather the nests of shareholders. Meanwhile, Britain lies significantly behind global investment rates, whose average stands significantly higher at 25%. And there are clever, clever economists scratching their heads over the cause the country's low productivity.

You can explain this to the Tories. You can show them the numbers and the charts, but they're not interested. Because, ultimately, this is about class politics, not "growing the economy". As explained many times round these parts, the Tories under Sunak want to defund and denude the state of its social capacities. I.e. Those bits of the state the left traditionally defends, such as public services, the education system. NHS, social security, and were conceded over decades of struggle. On this, there is a unanimity of opinion. Where the difference lies is the speed. Sunak, with one foot in political realities, understands that this project has to be managed with caution and nous. Shifting the dial so few look to state action to improve their lives cannot be accomplished overnight. Having learned nothing from the Truss debacle, the 150 or so Tory MPs these "research" groups speak for would prefer to throw caution to the wind because it worked so well last time.

This indulgence of fantasy is to be expected as the Tories stare down the barrel of millenarian doom. The world outside the party is uninterested, if not hostile, and attempts at reconnection have whiffs of desperation about them. With the anxiety of defeat looming in, delusional comfort can be drawn from internal conversations and preaching to the choir in the party and the press. And when it echoes back, one might believe the fantasy that saving Britain's biggest businesses tax money they've spent decades squandering is a vote winner.

From Labour's point of view, there's no bad result here. A row over tax when the cost of living crisis is biting estranges the Tories further from the voters they need on board - even if Sunak sees off his idiot backbenchers. And should he lose, and he has a habit of surrendering to Tory MP threats, it makes him look pitiful and undoes the stabilisation efforts cooked up by the briefcase element after they had coup'd Truss and put Jeremy Hunt into Number 11. The political agony is exquisite, and either outcome makes the inevitable defeat that much heavier. Extinction is knocking on the doors, while a good chunk of the parliamentary party earnestly believe salvation is at hand.

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Saturday 18 February 2023

Blue States - Season Song

This tune from the sound track reminds us that the opening to 28 Days Later is one of the best ever. Often imitated in the 20 years since, never bettered.

Friday 17 February 2023

Glory Days are Coming?

Absurd propositions can become hard fact. There have recently been two such events that have made a fool out of me. The first was Jacket Potato on The Masked Singer getting revealed as Bon Jovi guitarist Richie Sambora, after pouring much scorn on the suggestion. And the other was on Wednesday. Responding to Nicola Sturgeon's departure, I wrote the idea her resignation "opens the road to Labour gaining 25 Scottish seats is the dumbest official optimism heard in some time." And then YouGov went and dropped a poll.

In field work done prior to Sturgeon's announcement, on Westminster voting intention the SNP are in the lead on 39%, but from nowhere Labour have surged to 36%. In seat terms it means, depending on who you believe, an estimated gain of between 21 and 29 seats. So much for the scoffing. Okay, in all probability this poll is an outlier. Survation also published a poll today with figures more in the standard range (43% SNP, 29% Labour), and their field work concluded a couple of days before YouGov started gathering its data. Did much happen in that time? Nope. The issues around gender recognition certificates did not reach fever pitch. Nor did the questions surrounding Peter Murrell. Similarly, a Savanta survey done between the 15th and 17th, after Sturgeon's speech, puts the SNP on 42% and Labour 32%. All these lend credence to YouGov's being a rogue finding.

But what if it's not and most pundits, me included, have been shown up as know-nothings? How to explain a shift in the polls of this character? It's not like masses of Scottish voters have taken notice of Keir Starmer's decentralisation plans and are on board. In lieu of anything, a couple of not entirely exclusive hypotheses come to mind.

1. The SNP's approach to independence has been comprehensively defeated by the Supreme Court, which was inevitable as a matter of law. The Scottish Parliament's powers are tightly circumscribed and it has no legal basis for self-determination beyond what Westminster has delegated to it. Even though there is a strong political case for a second referendum, neither Rishi Sunak nor Starmer after him are going to say yes to one. With the SNP's commitment to accepting the constitutional rules of the game, there is nowhere else to go. Their anti-Tory alternative is blocked. Unless the independence movement becomes a campaign of mass disobedience that simultaneously puts pressure on the Tories, backed by a firm and persistent polling lead for Yes, all that is left is what the SNP can manage as the Scottish government within the UK framework. With some SNP supporters realising this, and deciding there are more pressing issues, it isn't difficult to fathom why some might return to Labour who are offering something better (but not unproblematic) than five more years of Sunak and friends.

2. Split ticketing. The poll's voter intention for Holyrood diverges significantly from Westminster. For the constituency vote share the SNP are on 39% and Labour 28%. On the list vote (where the SNP share is depressed anyway), it's 33% and 28%. This might suggest a layer of SNP voters have come to the conclusion that their party is best for Scotland, but are moving back to Labour to help lock the Tories out of Westminster. Given the policy consistency between the two parties on a range of issues (save independence), they've concluded that an SNP government can deliver more if Labour are in Number 10.

Whatever the case, it's certainly not enthusiasm for Scottish Labour in and of itself. Though, even if the poll is a freak, that might change. Having fought shy of attracting SNP supporters because appealing to the unionist leanings of erstwhile Tories was easier, Anas Sarwar's speech at today's spring conference is a good step in the right direction: clear home insulation targets, decarbonising by 2030, populist attacks on the oil giants, Centrica, and Amazon, identified NHS savings at the expense of unnecessary bureaucracy, and the homes for a quid scheme that were a big success here in Stoke-on-Trent for bringing dilapidated houses mack into use. These were all good eye catchers and is exactly what would-be Labour voters want to hear more of. Is the moment of Labour's Scottish recovery finally here?

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Wednesday 15 February 2023

Goodbye Nicola Sturgeon

It was meant to be a big day for Keir Starmer. With no news happening because the MPs are on half term, the Labour grid was hoping to hog the politics headlines. His message, that the changes he'd made to the party were "irrevocable", any left wingers who didn't like it knew where the door was, and that antisemitism was dead as an issue, was meant for the media, business elites, and right-leaning floating voters who are still iffy about the party. But within moments he was upstaged and, save for the rounds of discourse on Twitter, proceedings became dominated by Nicola Sturgeon's unexpected resignation. In her statement, Sturgeon admitted this was something she'd been thinking about for a long time. As well as asking whether carrying on as First Minister was right for her, she said
... more importantly, is me carrying on right for the country, for my party, and for the independence cause I have devoted my life to?
What a marked contrast to Boris Johnson and the tawdry spectacle of his doomed efforts at clinging on while the Parliamentary Conservative Party went on strike against him. Sturgeon was self-deprecating and honest about the toll a front rank job exacts from those who take it up. Coming not long after Jacinda Adern stepped down as party leader and Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand for similar reasons, it's likely her departure from the political stage helped focus Sturgeon's mind as well.

Timing, however, is everything. In recent weeks Sturgeon has been under pressure for her support for trans rights and gender recognition, an issue that finds plenty of the "genuine concerns" brigade in the SNP. Closer to home, there's been a long-running sore concerning the conduct of her husband, Peter Murrell, who happens to be the party's chief executive. A couple of years ago, questions were raised about the pressure he allegedly put on the police to press charges against Alex Salmond. And there are allegations of fraud in the air. A £600k party fund ring fenced for independence referendum campaigning was variously diverted into other spending, while Murrell provided the SNP a £108,000 loan that was not declared properly. Hardly the sorts of troughing and corruption we see with the Tories, but it doesn't look good either and could only tarnish Sturgeon's image. In politics assets can become liabilities in the blink of an eye, so who can blame her for retiring from the field while her ratings remained positive.

With no obvious successor with a similar profile to her when taking over from Salmond, the Westminster parties - despite the due decorum - feel that they might find a way back. Jim Murphy, the architect of Labour's 2015 disaster, thinks Labour's Anas Sarwar will have the credibility of insurgency in his sails, and can now claim the title of Scotland's best known politician. Really? Better known than Mhairi Black, Joanna Cherry, and Angus Robertson? Scottish Labour are doing a bit better in the polls lately, but largely thanks to the collapse of the Tories. The idea of contesting the SNP for the return of its base still doesn't figure in party strategy, beyond a bland economism that alibis unionism through the old "there are more pressing problems to deal with". If that was the case, why did Keir Starmer make such a big deal about constitutional issues in the middle of an acute cost of living crisis? I digress. The idea Sturgeon's resignation opens the road to Labour gaining 25 Scottish seats is the dumbest official optimism heard in some time.

That said, her successor is likely to have a tougher time. None of the names in the frame have the singular appeal Sturgeon cultivated. She was straight talking, empathetic, and easily tough enough to parry and fling back insults during Holyrood argy-bargy. And at 16 years at the top of Scottish politics, a canny and versatile politician that astutely played the game to victorious conclusion - save her ambition to be the first leader of an independent Scotland. For a time she embodied the Yes movement and Scottish nationalism's best face - that which is socially liberal and social democratic, honest about the challenges but, rare in UK politics, resolutely and non-cynically optimistic. The would-be heirs are variously compromised. Robertson and Stephen Flynn might have left many bloodied bodies from internal fights in their wake, Cherry is in the SNP's transphobic minority (and, like Flynn, is tied to Westminster and therefore cannot stand), Humza Yousaf is carrying the can for the Scottish NHS's refusal to meet the demands of striking nurses, and Kate Forbes's overt old school religiosity doesn't chime with the civic inclusivity ot the Sturgeon SNP. No wonder then that there will be a toasting of her resignation in Westminster tonight. Without her fronting it up, the campaign for Scottish independence has been set back and with it the union is that little bit more secure.

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Tuesday 14 February 2023

Against Left Covid Scepticism

One of the most frustrating and mind-bending developments during the last 18 months is the collapse of a section of the left into Covid scepticism. The class analysis went down the plug hole, and in came a laissez-faire individualism in conformity with Tory bio- and necropolitical management of the pandemic. Mask denialism, vaccine agnosticism, opposition to air filtration, there has been a straightforward take up of right wing "libertarian" talking points and arguments. Including the pretence that Covid isn't very serious, hasn't killed millions, left even more with long-term health problems, and constitutes a danger to the clinically vulnerable still. Following the publication of Toby Green and Thomas Fazi's The Covid Consensus, which attempts to put a left face on Covid scepticism while giving semi-conspiratorial arguments credence, Richard Seymour has taken them apart in his Interregnum slot on Politics Theory Other. It comes highly recommended.

Monday 13 February 2023

Petty-Minded Penny-Pinching Politics

When representatives of the Imperial German army and the young Soviet republic met at Brest-Litovsk to talk peace, the junkers and the ambassadors treated the Bolsheviks to a banquet. Indeed, for about a week the revolutionaries were charmed and beguiled by expensive wine and garrulous company. Then Leon Trotsky arrived to take charge of the talks and immediately stopped the fraternisation. Offers of cosy chats over coffee and cigars were rebuffed and a much more hard-headed approach was adopted. Fast forward to 2023 and we see Labour has compiled an extensive and detailed report (volume one no less!) looking at spending by Tory ministers and how their departments make use of Government Procurement Cards. A return of the Trotskyist repressed as Starmer wages war on frippery while striking blows for seriousness?

Looking at some of the highlighted cases, we learn the Treasury spent over £3,000 for 11 ministers on a five star hotel for the G20 in Venice. The then National Security Advisor spent four quid shy of a thousand on yet more five star accommodation in Amman, Jordan, while he and two officials were on an official visit. Greg Hands, now in the news for other reasons, spent £636 on two nights at a plush hotel in Koenigswinter, Germany, while meeting with financial and industrial elites. The Foreign Office forked out over seven grand for a Liz Truss reception when she was foreign secretary, and the Department of Health spent £60k on stationary in March 2021 alone. There are many more in the dataset - enough to entertain and scandalise any number of "I'm a tax payer, me" bean counters.

It's not hard to see what Labour is trying to do. While the cost of living crisis bears down on Hard Working People, Tory ministers and civil servants have lived it large at the public's expense. The Tories demand sacrifices and hard choices of everyone but themselves, and they stand exposed as hypocrites as well as profligate spenders on sundries and unnecessaries. It's an effort to whip up a bit of populism and generate some real anti-Tory antipathy. They cannot be trusted with your money.

Labour's document is a thorough piece of work. The data is already in the public domain but compiling it was not a light undertaking in time and effort expended, but is it worth it? From a spending point of view, it's a few hundred million pounds over a couple of years. It's nothing compared to the scandal of PPE procurement, the ongoing tax breaks for fossil fuel interests, and how capital shakes the state down through guaranteed markets underwritten by state money (railways, pharmaceuticals, military spend, "R&D") and the "provision" of public services (new and outstanding PFIs). Concentrating on morsels while feasts of cash rush out of the door is, at best, a questionable priority.

Neither is it particularly sharp politics. To the charges made by Labour, the Tories have replied that spending of this character topped £1bn in 2009 - the last full year of Labour on government. Others have pointed to Angela Rayner, who fronted the wheeze for the media, and her not inconsiderable expenses claims. And what happens when Keir Starmer claims the keys to Downing Street? Are ministers packed off to European capitals expected to stay in travellers' hostels? Visitors to Arab states advised to pack a tent? Are they going to be directed to eat from street stalls or the local equivalents of a greasy spoon? And when they inevitably avoid self-denial and end up being as lavish as the Tories, what then?

This really is typical of "Starmerism". In as far as it has a politics, it's authoritarian and reform-minded. Except "reform" here is the technocratic modernisation of the state. While going populist on the "findings", the Labour document is a micro-management critique of comparatively small spending decisions, with the implicit suggestion that Starmer's "grown-ups" would never splash out on a staff Christmas party paid for by the department as a thank you. It's more process than politics.

Which brings us back to our old friend Trotsky. This period of austerity in the Soviet Union's diplomatic dealings did not last. With his fall from grace, the USSR assumed the same bourgeois niceties as the capitalist states in its treating with them. A symptom of degeneracy, perhaps, but a necessary one for building the soft power connections and informal ties with the diplomatic corps of states that a few years previously tried strangling the revolutionary republic in its cradle. Starmer is as far away from Trotsky's motivations as you can be, but what he criticises Tory ministers for now is standard practice. The image he wants to project of a thrusting, modernising UK will not be well served if foreign dignitaries have to go dutch on Foreign Office spreads, or if its staff are housed in AirBnBs. This is pitiful, petty-minded penny-pinching politics that can only blow back on Starmer and friends, and reveals that little bit more about what a nonsense his government will turn out to be.