Sunday 30 April 2023

Keir Starmer and Public Sector Reform

The left - the far left in particular - are often criticised for their commitment to certain shibboleths. These can take a variety of forms, such as how China today is some sort of workers' state, that the crisis of our times can be reduced to the problem of proletarian leadership, and that Labour at the height of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership remained a "bourgeois party" no different in quality and kind from the Tories and Liberal Democrats. But the grown-ups of so-called centrism have their own as well. Like believing that beating up your own party wins votes. That defending tuition fees and hospital car parking charges are very good actually. How the NHS could do with more private involvement. Last and, by no means least, public services need one thing more than money: reform.

Which brings us to Keir Starmer's Sunday interview with The Observer. While the headline goes with "I’ll be bolder than Blair on public service reform", not much is given away as the article concentrates on other things. But on public services themselves, Starmer said his government would be a "reforming government ready to go from day one, further than Blair on public services, further than the Tories in the private sector", noting that "“I think we can go beyond what the Blair government did on public services … because I think there is unfinished business there.” That doesn't sound particularly heart warming.

Casting our minds back to the Blair years, it is true to say New Labour did renovate public services, expanded them, and improved them with great wodges of cash. One of the ironies of the early period of the Tory-led Coalition was how many of these services were subsequently defended by leftists who'd spent the previous decade attacking Blair for being no better than a Tory. I was one of these people. But, as ever, the detail is where the Devil resides. Blair accomplished this by forcing public sector bodies to take up costly PFI schemes to refurbish or rebuild their physical infrastructure. There was the imposition of targets and competition between state bodies, a scheme carried over from John Major's Citizen's Charter (more in the book), and the bedding down of "choice" agendas designed to make the public sector more "responsive", as if local community centres were branches of New Look. It still jars with me how local authorities refer to its service users as "customers". Blair's plan was to take this even further with more markets, more outsourcing and privatisation, and more attacks on the people Labour is supposed to represent. And, reportedly, that he wasn't able to see this through was his one regret upon leaving office.

You can see why Starmer's comments on public services are enough to give any labour movement person pause. Mindful of what went on 20 years ago, the Labour leader was quick to add that this did not mean the expansion of private provision but repositioning services so they meet current needs, and with an accent on prevention. Let's pretend we trust Keir Starmer for a moment. It sounds innocuous enough. As is well documented, the Tories have been running public services into the ground. In the NHS, the refusal to pay nurses and junior doctors the market rate for their services has nothing to do with the struggle against inflation and everything to do with their efforts at residualising the health service. Management have been given carte blanche to run down the semi-privatised Royal Mail. Local authorities struggle to deliver statutory services. Dental deserts are common. Even getting a passport these days is a slog. Wanting to make sure these services work properly, as Starmer appears to, is like pushing at an open door. It's a concern that chimes with the experiences of millions of people.

We know what the problem is: the withholding of monies. And quite deliberate it is too. When this is obvious, are we right to be worried that the Labour leader goes on about reform instead of funding? The more credulous Starmerites might think this is more clever-clever politics, or "hard ball" as they call it these days, whereby promising nothing is smart politics because if you don't stand for anything then the Tories will have a problem nailing you down. Good luck with that. Or you might believe in the equally preposterous notion that all the reactionary rubbish pushed by Starmer so far is establishing "permission" to be heard so the bag of goodies he's itching to open won't frighten former Tory voters.

It's better to be realistic about such things. In as far as a coherent Starmerism exists, it's a programme of state modernisation. To be a little bit more sociological, in terms of bourgeois politics it's the collective effort of bureaucrats and technocrats to take the state back from the show boaters, wreckers, and placemen that have run it into the ground over 13 years of Tory government. This is also an authoritarian politics. You don't need to look at Labour's equivocations over spy cops and war crimes legislation, Starmer's approving comments about locking Just Stop Oil protesters up, and the heavy handed way he policies the Labour Party (with extreme hypocritical prejudice) for clues. It's been there in the DNA of his politics all along, and one with deep roots in the Labour and Fabian traditions. I.e. Vote us in, we'll look after the politics, and you only need bother about this stuff in another four or five years' time. The flip side of this is, of course, do as I say not as I do, and treating promises instrumentally. I.e. Sticking to them for as long as the expedience is there.

I have no doubt Starmer wants to reform the state and make it work, and how it plays out in his project involves two things. Subordinating everything to economic growth, which is restated as the driving principle of his government and legitimating essence of everything he does. As per the recent embrace of decentralisation and devolution. And modernising the state also means repositioning the British people. In recent years, too many have become an angry, unruly, and irreverent (elderly) mob motivated by Brexit and other right wing hobby horses. Even worse, more have been actively politicised in the other direction. First Corbynism, and now millions of workers are participating in industrial action of some description, exacerbated by the Tories' abrogation of responsibility and refusal to negotiate. Starmerism wants to put a lid on this by partially re-institutionalising the labour movement in state structures. Second, whatever reform comes forward from Starmer-friendly think tanks and the Fabians' policy pamphlets, finding other ways of gifting state money to business is only secondary. What matters is getting the state running and offering new and improved public services so millions have a stake in it again (which Labour can reap the election benefits of), and so millions more people relate to it as service users. This repairs the authority of state institutions, which have taken a battering, the legitimacy of the state itself, and recasts politics around the Starmerist/Fabian model. In short, it's a depoliticisation strategy. Depleting the state is the Tories' not-very-successful attempt at the same, whereas Starmer's approach - gleaned from everything said and promised so far - is suggestive of a politics marked by redrawing the boundary between lay people and experts, reconstituting a consumerist relationship to state services (perhaps with some funky "co-designing" going on), and letting the technocrats and high foreheads get on with the business of government.

A bit speculative, perhaps, but this is what drives Starmer's preoccupation with public sector reform: the definition of politics and what the limits of acceptable discourse under his government are going to be.

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Friday 28 April 2023

Local Council By-Elections April 2023

This month saw 4,422 votes cast in three local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. No council seats changed hands. For comparison with March's results, see here.

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

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There were no Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of TUSC (20 votes)

There's nothing much you can say about months like these. With local elections next week and by-elections getting rolled over to polling day, April has been tumbleweed with just three contests and three easy Labour holds. That's it!

20th April
Enfield, Bullsmoor, Lab hold
Warrington, Latchford West, Lab hold

27th April
Swansea, Penderry, Lab hold

Thursday 27 April 2023

Running on Vapours

Apologies folks for not writing much recently. It's not that I've run out of things to say (that's ever likely to happen), but more a case of not having as much energy or enthusiasm to keep bashing the articles out at the same rate. Part of it has to do with the way politics are at the moment. Yes, as long forecast here the Tories are facing their gotterdammerung - and not before time - and that should be something worth celebrating. Especially for a vainglorious told-you-so like me. But replacing it will be a Labour Party led by its most disingenous and dishonest leader ever, and with him will come a cabinet of third rate West Wing cosplayers paid for by private health and gambling interests. Grim.

Looking back over the last 20-odd years of writing here and elsewhere, what has kept me going is an identification with a political project. For the 00s, two far left groups kept the embers stirred. In the 10sies, it was Labour. And since Keir Starmer became leader, analysis of his project has been combined with ceaseless rearguard actions and retreat. And seeing him give the Tories a free pass on everything of importance, from Covid to the NHS to practically everything; dispiriting about sums it up. Why hundreds of thousands of people have left the Labour Party is entirely understandable. Whatever I've said and written about Labour and "Starmerism" on here is from a position of weakness, if not impotence. The left's opportunity to shift things and shape the next government grow weaker by the day. At least within the channels open in the party and via the trade union links. Busy at work and having to think more about doing "proper" pieces for "proper" journals haven't helped either.

This is all a roundabout way of saying the posting schedule is likely to slow down from now on. This will allow the vapours in the old tank enough time to condense into usuable gasoline. That is unless something new comes along and fires the political imagination.

Monday 24 April 2023

Labour's Hierarchy of Racism

"In my view it had to be condemned, it was antisemitic ...". Keir Starmer went on to say a hierarchy of racism is never acceptable. Which begs the question why, in response to Diane Abbott's ill-advised letter to The Observer about racism faced by black people versus prejudice faced by Irish, Jewish, and GRT people, the Labour leader failed to mention the first and last communities in his remarks. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, as they say.

Needless to say, Labour right hands are sore with all the rubbing they've been doing. Diane, caving in to that useless urge of the left to paint a target on its back, offered Starmer and his eager-to-please minions the pretext for her suspension and it was taken up with alacrity. This has led to two days worth of - mostly white men - driving themselves into a frenzy, publicly and with unseemly enthusiasm lecturing actual victims of racism on what racism is and isn't, and making it obvious there's something unsaid about their dislike of Britain's first black woman MP. A tawdry spectacle indeed that demonstrates, as it has before, that Labour's antisemitism wars were never really about racism and rooting it out. Factional advantage is all that matters to these people, which is why the Forde report is never acknowledged in public, and anti-Muslim and anti-black prejudice gets a free pass. It's the right wingers who do it, and we cant well have their people on the hook.

There isn't much else to say. There is a hierarchy of racism in the Labour Party, not all racisms are judged equally bad or treated with the same severity, and some - such as that peddled against traveller communities - are fair game for party leaflets. It depends less on who you are than on what your politics is. A life long anti-racist campaigner like Diane Abbott given the heave ho over a stupid letter verus someone like Wolverhampton MP Pat McFadden, wheeled out this morning on BBC Breakfast to put the boot in, and his past campaign against a legal traveller camping site in his patch. Or the hideous John Mann, the Tories' antisemitism "Tsar", who was interviewed by the plod while nominally a Labour MP after putting out a booklet linking the GRT community to anti-social behaviour. No action was ever taken against them, and they are allowed by the media to preen their anti-racist feathers knowing they will never be held accountable for their racist campaigning.

And, I'm sorry to say, none of this is going to change. Despite recent slippage in the polls, Labour is odds-on to form the next government. And when the party does, its hierarchy of racism will find new purposes. Rather than a disciplinary tool for keeping the undesirable left in line, its use will switch to defining new scapegoats as Starmerism hits its authoritarian stride. Every top down project needs malcontents to blame when the politics aren't peachy.

When all is said and done, I don't think Diane will lose the whip permanently. Despite the wishes and best efforts of the factional zealots Starmer has promoted, she is not viewed as a threat to the project in the same way Jeremy Corbyn was and continues to present. And there is a view among some layers of the Labour right that a bit of magnanimity from the Labour leader would go a way in shoring up the party's left flank in the face of the modest Tory poll revival.

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Friday 21 April 2023

Dominic Raab's Rebarbative Barb

At last! A Tory politician follows through by making good on a promise! When Dominic Raab was forced to announce and inquiry into multiple bullying allegations made against him by civil servants, he pledged to stand down if the investigation found against him. It did, and Raab's ministerial career is in the bin. Until Rishi Sunak recalls him to cabinet, which could be as short as six days if Suella Braverman's reappointment is anything to go by. But because this is the Conservative Party, having a dignified exit is never the done thing.

In a resignation letter Raab posted to Twitter, he turned on his accusers. He said the inquiry's findings were "flawed" and "set a dangerous precedent for the conduct of good government". Refusing to accept that there was any substance to the allegations, he goes on: "Ministers must be able to give direct critical feedback on briefings and submissions ... setting the threshold of bullying so low ... it will encourage spurious complaints against ministers ... [there was] systematic of skewed and fabricated claims to the media ...". Where civil servants suffered it was an accidental by-product of his exuberance for the job, and besides their snowflake feelings got in the way of Delivering the Priorities of the British People, so shouldn't be taken too seriously. And for good measure, in his interview with Chris Mason, Raab said the problem lay not with him but "activist civil servants" who were against the government's agenda. Imagine how much worse the criminal justice system would be if they hadn't done some strategic bed blocking.

Raab is a pretty repugnant character, and knows there can never be a rebuttal from those against whom he lays his charges. And so his resignation is staged as ritualistic self-sacrifice. The end of career came by his own hand, but an unseemly keenness to claim the mantle of conservative victimhood meant it was others who forced it. This is far from the language of contrition but of grudge-bearing, and one that feeds into Tory mythologies of woke officialdom and blobs of socialist subversives that have the state machinery in their vice-like grip. Undoubtedly, attacks on the civil service - always badged under the guise of "reform" - will be in the culture war box of tricks ahead of the next election.

Where does this leave Rishi Sunak? Not too damaged, as it happens. He has moved swiftly to replace Raab with Alex Chalk and Oliver Dowden, both with strong biceps from carrying the Prime Minister's briefcase for years. Readers might recall Dowden disgraced himself with a ridiculous speech about wokeness. Funny how Sunak keeps appointing these culture warrior arseholes. And Chalk, at least, used to be a top solicitor so is well placed if Sunak wants to pivot toward his delivery, delivery, delivery pitch and get him to do something about the dreadful courts backlog. But this rapid move follows weeks of paralysis. The Raab saga has hardly tarnished Sunak's government because events (dear boy) are doing a bigger, more comprehensive job. But letting the Raab saga drag on in typically Johnsonian fashion reminds us that political risks and political costs are never at the forefront of Sunak's mind. It might not matter now, and the Raab story will be as memorable for most punters as last week's weather forecast, but it reminds us that the Prime Minister has the habit of leaving rakes scattered about him and standing on one will give his government a bloodied nose sooner rather than later.

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Thursday 20 April 2023

Should Novara Interview Matthew Goodwin?

Should left media provide its opponents a platform? This has been a feature of the discourse lately as Novara Media prepares to interview the always-awful (innumerate) Matthew Goodwin about his latest book. You've probably heard about it. In his Values, Voice and Virtue, he makes the dubious case that a new left wing elite control Britain's cultural institutions. Never mind how the right control the government, the press, the means of production, and casts a domineering relationship over all else - including the "liberal elite"- it's them damned lefties we need to be worrying about. If only. As with right wing reflections on society generally, there's a rational kernel wrapped in layers of bullshit-reeking crud, and it dovetails with other conspiratorial rantings about shadowy elites brainwashing the susceptible. There's nothing original in Goodwin's argument. A very adjacent take got an airing in a little-read book by Ed West a few years ago, and is a watered down version of the antisemitic "Cultural Marxism" conspiracy theory. One favoured these days by the Telegraph and Suella "I can't be antisemitic - I'm married to a Jewish guy!" Braverman.

Unfortunately, as is customary for rightwingers, by claiming his arguments were cancelled by the liberal media Goodwin's book has got the sort of heavy promotion by the press that money can't buy. A lot of people are going to read it. A lot of people have read it. But how should the left respond? Novara's decision to interview him has provoked criticisms and denunciations from some comrades. There's the reasoned - if you must cover this work, why not get left commentators/experts on to pull the thesis to shreds? And there's the intemperate - Aaron Bastani et al are grifters and are undoing the work of no platform campaigns of recent years. The argument goes that by platforming someone like Goodwin, he's somehow being "normalised" as a commentator, and Novara are slipping into the neoliberal market place of ideas format that does nothing to aid understanding and, effectively, promotes Goodwin's ideas as something worthwhile to engage with. However, this does not stop with Goodwin. In recent years Novara have copped it in the neck for having on John McTernan and Paul Mason, so the debate is not just about providing arch reactionaries a platform, but the kinds of people the left should or should not extend its space to.

I understand where this comes from. Living in a society where, contra Goodwin, the right wing gatekeeps, the liberal media - whether press or broadcast - is subordinate and largely supine, and left voices, let alone left media, are few and far between, it's reasonable to argue our bandwith is too narrow to carry the politics of people who spew their rubbish from every broadcast mast, satellite, and fibre optic connection. But it depends what one's left media is project is about. When we say 'left media', we're implying a plurality. Different bits of different media do different things. This place, for example, is as basic as you can get. It's simply an outlet for my commentary on politics and, very occasionally, other ephemera. When I'm too tired/can't be arsed or I've spotted enough new initiatives, the blog features work from other left media projects to give them a (very modest) boost. This is something I've always done and will continue doing. And that's fine, that's this blog's niche. Similarly, consider the evergreen Politics Theory Other. What Alex offers is a platform for discussing key issues with left wing experts on certain topics, and/or a showcasing of their recent work. No one else does this, and Alex has done an excellent job bringing out interesting and radical work that might otherwise have got stuck in the seminar room or in a seldom-read book. Lastly, consider a paper from one of the 57 varieties. For Trots and Tankies alike, the paper (or website) is a scaffold for their party-building projects. Everything is subordinate to that aim, and because often the papers are thin and their circulation thinner everything is given over to pushing their politics and pretending they're a squillion times more significant than they really are. Again, that's absolutely fine. Propaganda groups are going to produce propaganda if that's what you want to do.

This is not Novara's aim. From day one, its ambition has been to provide an alternative, left wing news media organisation. And, unlike the best traditions of the British left, it's proving quite successful. Audience for its content, and we're talking relatively long form video here, not TikToks and sassy memes, often tops over 100,000 views. In podcasting, Novara is battling and besting the centrist and conservative big boys in all the charts that matter. And its programming has grown to a nightly offering, suggesting more than just left wing activists and demobilised Corbynites are tuning in. Chances are Novara will carry on expanding. I look forward to the day where it can go toe-to-toe with BBC and ITV news and current affairs programming, and its written output circulates as well as the broadsheets' own very important columnists. That is to say Novara is in sight of becoming what it was always meant to be: a counterweight to the unserious, childish, and manipulative rubbish that has long positioned and poisoned this country's politics.

Whereas most left outlets reach out to the converted and usually catches the curious by chance, building an alternative to the establishment's press and broadcast institutions means thinking about how to reach beyond the small and perfectly formed audiences the left are accustomed to. Which brings us back to the upcoming Goodwin episode. If, say, Michael Walker had a panel of Novara regulars on or left wing authorities on anti-fascism, class, and racism, his position would get utterly eviscerated in front of an audience of 10,000 viewers. Challenging Goodwin's bollocks to his face, pulling out the non-sequiturs, dishonesties, and similarities to Cultural Marxism would get many more because, obviously, it would be entertaining to see him get handed his arse. The point is not to convince Goodwin of the errors of his ways, but to demonstrate the absurdity of his argument to those interested in but not fully aware of how false it is, where it could lead, and who wouldn't bother tuning in to earnest but obscure lefties chewing through Goodwin's book. Some of the audience attracted to the Goodwin spectacle will inevitably stick around for other Novara programming, and find their views challenged and become regular consumers of left media. By expanding its audience, all left media projects might get a lift. Just as how, many years ago, right wing papers realised they could make money from working up a left-liberal outrage machine.

But what about the normalising argument? I'm sorry to say the idea the left rule this country undemocratically and from the shadows is already normalised. It has currency in DailyMailTelegraphTimesExpressSun land with its racist overtones and, sadly, among the red and blackpilled misogynists who follow the crock of Andrew Tate and other horrors. Taking on the ideas current in this disaffected layer can, over time and repeated exposure, deprogramme and persuade. As ContraPoints has ably demonstrated in her work.

Ultimately, it comes down to what you think left media should be about. If you want to build an alternative to the mainstream with news bureaus, specialist correspondents, and mass audiences to match, then it does mean meeting the audience you want to reach and shape as you find them now. More often than not, it means going out on a limb and breaking with propagandist traditions of pushing a narrow range of views and concerns. Having sold many a deadly dull Trotskyist newspaper to reluctant punters, people are only ever going to be attracted to left media if it offers something attractive. This is the only way to building the counterweight to the mainstream we all want to see. And if you don't agree with Novara's efforts or strategy at winning over new viewers, then don't support them and try building something else. Eventually, the audience might come to you. But that 'eventually' is going to be a very, very long time.

Tuesday 18 April 2023

BBC Framing and Distortion: A Case Study

The work of the Glasgow University Media Group has long argued that the news media, including broadcast news, consistently supports the interests of the powerful. This isn't because each and every news report is vetted by a committee for elite interests prior to airing or printing, but because journalists by and large have imbibed their perspectives. Throw away the images of reporters as fearless pursuers of the truth. All too often, their copy sits well within the parameters of what is permitted. No one tells them what to write because they don't need to be told. They know what stories with what angle will satisfy their editors' requirements, and because they like working in the media they'll abide by the unstated rules of the game. Furthermore, when it comes to hiring decisions by news and media organisations, beliefs and values matter the most. Hence why there is now a preponderance of Oxbridge types and nepo babies: their education and their connections are, more than anything else, markers of their suitability. It's a sign before they've uttered or spoken a single word that they can be relied on to produce the correct takes.

This came to mind when I encountered Chris Mason's piece on the standards inquiry into Rishi Sunak. From Dishy to Fishy Rishi, our glorious leader can't help but get himself in trouble. From being ambushed by a cake along with Boris Johnson to "forgetting" that he had a green card for work in the United States, to not wearing his seatbelt during a social media flick, we've known for some time there have been questions marks over his, or to be more accurate, his family's finances. You will recall the pickle Sunak's wife, Akshata Murty, got into for her nondom tax status (still no sign of her paying back monies dodged while she erroneously claimed it). And her holding shares in Daddy's company Infosys, which has significant Russian interests and should, in theory, fall foul of British sanctions. And there was the occasion a fitness firm she had a stake in did well out of her husband's pandemic support for businesses. And, here we are again, Sunak "forgot" to declare an interest Murty had in one aspect of last month's budget: as a shareholder in a child care firm, she stands to gain substantially from the planned subsidy that extends child care entitlements. And he forgot to mention this in front of the Select Committee.

One might be inclined to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt. How can a rich person be expected to remember how many pies they have their fingers in? But Sunak said he had declared all his interests in the normal way. Except the Register of Ministerial Interests has not been updated for over a year, and that means nothing has been declared at all. Indicating that Sunak had misled the Committee, which is not a good look. Especially as his predecessor once removed is in a spot of bother for similar. So yes, this is potentially serious. Whether intentional or accidental, this is a breach of standards and Sunak needs to be held to account for it. Senior politicians have resigned for less in the past.

And yet, encountering Chris Mason's piece - these days the BBC's political editor - rather than treating it as a potentially serious issue, we're treated to his disassembling informal "style" where, basically, he shrugs his shoulders and asks "How big a deal is inquiry into Rishi Sunak's declarations?" Having got over his title he notes that "on the Richter scale of these things, it feels like a rather minor tremor. Think a few loose roof tiles rather than anything much more." And later on, the failure of the Register of Ministerial Interests to be published is referred to as a "a symptom of the chaos at Westminster in the last year or so", as if it was merely the natural turbulence of the chamber at fault. Not Johnson's studied and repeated attempts at dodging accountability and any constitutional conventions that might have stymied him. In all, a bit of sly editorialising that reports on a major news story - the Prime Minister is under investigation for a constitutional impropriety - but the sting is removed by a) suggesting it's not serious, and b) saying no one's to blame for the mess. Even ChatGPT would baulk at producing an article so obviously compromised.

And this is where we come back to the Glasgow point. As the BBC's top politics journalist, Mason doesn't have anyone telling him what to write. It's unnecessary. I'd wager that he's blind to how his framing of the Sunak story has produced a distorted picture of it, resulting in a downplaying of its seriousness and exculpating everyone in government for their responsibility for this state of affairs. And this is of a piece we see day in and day out, where "BBCism" works as a faux impartiality that somehow, always, coincidentally bends in the direction of the powers that be, and is entirely unconscious of its biases.

Sunday 16 April 2023

Will the Tories Lose 1,000 Councillors?

According to Greg Hands speaking to Sophy Ridge on Sunday morning, the Tories are all set to lose 1,000 councillors in the upcoming local elections. In a moment of what might seem like uncharacteristic honesty, rather than putting a brave face on the projected drubbing, the Tory party chair said "those are the independent predictions from the most credible academic sources." Blimey O'Reilly. But should we take this forecast at face value?

As The Mirror notes, there are peculiar forms of expectations management going on here. Typically the governing party likes to talk up the potential for losses while the main challenger party, in this case Labour, prefers to play down its chances. No one likes a braggart, and even with the polls still very much in Labour's favour the memory of the 1992 Sheffield rally looms large. Though, to be honest, its hubris had little if any impact on gifting us the unexpected Tory win. And the Tories, by conceding that they're going to get a real drubbing they can present losses south of the magic millennium as something of a victory, and proof Sunak's strategy might work, or at least save enough Tories from the chop so they can fantasise about coming back five years later.

Straightening out the spin, might we venture a forecast for the elections to come? Local contests are idiosyncratic, and often refuse to follow the national picture. Notoriously, for example, the 2017 local election results didn't point to a Labour resurgence, nor really did 2019's - the last time most of 2023's seats were up - hint that catastrophe was around the corner. This is because, unsurprisingly, in local elections local issues tend to feature. Think the council have done a good or bad job? Is your local councillor ever-present or an absentee? Is there a popular/unpopular decision that has polarised local opinion? All of these matter and enter into the mix. What political scientists refer to as 'low information voters' might follow the national polls, but as Paula Surridge points out, they're less likely to vote.

The second thing to remember is who the people most likely to turn out are. These are the elderly. As explained so many times here that I wrote a book about it, older people's political preferences bend toward the Conservatives (and the process underpinning this, property acquisition, is breaking down, meaning their coalition of older people is not replacing itself like-for-like as they pass away). Therefore, given how retired people are more likely to vote than working age people anyway the Tories have an inbuilt advantage in second order contests, like local government contests, because this effect is amplified. Turn out falls, but not as much among the older as opposed to younger cohorts. Hence comrades who hail narrow by-election victories in council and parliamentary by-elections as proof that Keir Starmer is a dud have it wrong. There are real problems with the Labour leader, but in these elections he is performing as well as any Labour leader and, I'm sorry to say, better than Jeremy Corbyn did. Therefore, Labour can pretty much always expect to perform better in a general election - when disproportionately Labour-supporting working-age people turn up in greater numbers - than in second order elections. If Labour does well in May then it's set to do even better next year, barring some unforeseen political car crash.

This year, however, the Tories have lobbed in the grenade of voter ID. A transparent attempt at voter suppression in the belief that younger people are less likely to go through the rigmarole of acquiring the identity proofs acceptable at polling stations, this could negatively impact Tory support as well. Many older people might have postal votes, but more of them do not and quite like to amble down to the community centre, school, or village hall to discharge their democratic duty. Will they have acquired the requisite photo ID, especially when some of it involves applying online? I know take up of the internet is much greater amongst the elderly these days but there remains a significant digital divide based around age, and some of them simply won't have bothered. Might the Tories have done us all a solid and inadvertently depressed their own support?

The truth is, forecasting the local elections is a tough call. Labour will pick up the most seats at the Tories' expense, but the challenge will come in local authorities the party already holds. Without much of a positive message to energise support, there could be some problems here - as we saw last year. The Liberal Democrats and Greens will do well too, and the Independents - who had a rare field day four years ago - might see themselves lose big against party-branded challenges. But beyond this, no one can say. The Milquetoast Labour pitch is designed to grab Tory votes, though if this layer wanted to support a conservative party there already is one on offer. But it's too difficult to say what will happen in any detail, except for this. If Labour win big, it will be taken as a vindication of their "hard-nosed" approach. And if not, they will conclude they need to go even further right to win over former Tory supporters and "seal the deal". The Tories may lose and lose hard, but in the end, their politics wins.

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Saturday 15 April 2023

Gley Lancer for the Sega Mega Drive

Years ago I remember Dara Ó Briain saying that, as entertainment products, video games are unique because they actively work against the player experiencing the entirety of its content. Which (obviously) differs from film, albums, literature, art, etc. in which the viewer, listener, and reader get to consume everything. Though readers of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake might raise a counterpoint. The video game industry is well aware of this, which is why in the days of blockbuster video games costing almost as much as blockbuster movies to produce, they're made much easier than they used to be. Or, to be more accurate, more accessible. Infinite respawns are available as standard across most modern titles, and the use of achievements are used to incentivise game playing excellence. A game still wants to end you, but there are sanctioned ways of bypassing premature endings to enjoy the full artistry of what's on offer. And the provision of crutches to get a player through a game as quick as they like helps shepherd players onto other titles on the release schedule.

All this struck me as I was playing though Gley Lancer, the 30-year-old Mega Drive shooter recently given a new lease of life on modern systems. As the system was, in its day, arguably the best console for scrolling shoot 'em ups, Gley Lancer stood out from the crowd for several reasons. Its play mechanics, the (mostly) quality graphics and decent sound engine and, a boon or a curse depending on your preferences, its difficulty - or lack thereof. This makes it somewhat unique on Sega's black box considering other entries into the horizontal blaster genre, like Hellfire and Gynoug pack a hefty challenge.

As games go, Gley Lancer brings two new mechanics to the party. The first is adjustable speed. Tradition up to this point had it that one's spaceship starts out as slow as a three-wheeled Lada and becomes zippy through the collection of speed power ups. Not here. The default setting is slow, but a press of the button allows the ship to speed up and slow down. Handy for later in the game when there are flying blocks and platforms to negotiate. The other are the options. At the beginning of the game you're given the choice about how your add-ons should fire. Should they automatically target the nearest enemy? Should they fire in the opposite direction your craft is moving? Should they circle the ship and fire forwards? There are more combinations, and inevitably everyone will have their own preferences. Interestingly, building on this gimmick is what the Switch and PlayStation 5 versions have done. Twin stick controls means the direction of fire can be guided by the second stick, and the patterns can be changed on the fly (along with other mod cons like rewinding the game, and sticking on the scanline shader).

Unlike other shooters, there's a strong focus on plot. For most it's a throw away excuse for framing an exercise in explosions and violence, but here it cannot be escaped. There are cut scenes galore done in the customary anime style in which you, Lucia Cadbrock, absconds with the Gley Lancer to rescue Dad from the evil, anonymous aliens. They can be skipped in-between intervals of levels, but the lengthy sequence at the end of the game cannot. For some reason, games with extensive cut scenes do command a premium on the retro market, and a copy of the original release will knock you back at least £200.

The rest, however, is fairly standard fare. Shoot the baddies, collect the power ups (spread shot, bounce shot, short range powerful shots, lasers, you know the drill), see off the end-of-level guardian. Rinse and repeat. It's very straightforward. Except for the first level, which shades into the annoying. Within seconds you're thrown into a shower of rocks and space debris that are indestructible, all the while the lovely parallax background of more asteroids clips along at a fair pace. This makes discerning objects very difficult. But apart from that, it's plain sailing from that point on. There are some nice-looking levels and stylish bosses, but it's all so very easy. Apart from the end-of-game baddy these bosses are the very opposite of a bullet sponge. If you so much breathe on them they expire, which is a shame as there is potential here for good, challenging confrontations with well-drawn and well-animated bad 'uns. All accompanied by a technically accomplished but a not very memorable sound track.

And this is where we get back to the issue we began with. Gley Lancer is an entertaining enough shooty romp across 11 levels. The two mechanical innovations make for an interesting experience (as well as being left wondering why more successive shooters didn't adopt them), and while not a technical masterpiece it is well-programmed, and the attention to detail is suggestive that it was a labour of love for some on the coding team. And if they've done a good job, why not show it off? The decision to make the bosses super easy, how the player is untroubled, and how higher difficulty levels are available if the game is completed suggests the production crew wanted to put everything they had created out on display. Or if not display, within reach of most players. Therefore, in playing Gley Lancer you'll get to experience all that it offers. The problem lies in whether you'd want to do it much after you've been through it once or twice.

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Friday 14 April 2023

Conservative Conscience

The Conservative conscience is a rare thing. Consider the last six months of Rishi Sunak's premiership. From the outset, the Prime Minister who was feted as a so-called adult-in-the-room has played the most grotesque politics over immigration and asylum and slotted in the repugnant Suella Braverman to do it. There's no point pretending he wasn't aware of the Home Secretary's BNP-adjacent politics. She was given back her old job because of them. Now, it is true she did face a bit of opposition from the Tory press to begin with, mainly because the press barons and their editorial satraps wanted to impress on Sunak the necessity of considering their power to frame British politics, but this quickly melted away as Braverman set about her appointed task with alacrity. As we know, the press loves a good scapegoat.

Meanwhile, there were little to no consciences troubled enough to speak out. But now, after weeks of bigging up the Rwanda plan, trying to accumulate racist political capital by eliding paedophile gangs with Asian men (and Labour getting in on the action), some brave Tory souls have cried "enough!". Sayeeda Warsi, who in the last decade has gone from Cameroon class warrior to openly despairing of the Tories resorting to the dirtiest of racist tricks has, quite rightly, argued that Braverman is not fit to hold office. Though her name and blame doesn't extend to Sunak himself, who "looked uncomfortable" when asked about the Home Secretary's choice of words. Tobias Ellwood, taking time out from his dreams of re-enacting Operation Barbarossa with NATO forces, made a similar point. This, apparently, does "do not sit well with the new, pragmatic and cooperative approach which the prime minister is now injecting into Number 10 and is seeing us improve in the polls." If only Sunak was in a position to stop Braverman, eh?

These aren't the only ones who aren't happy. Steve Baker, the former hard man of Brexit turned briefcase sensibilist has, via "allies", let it be known that Braverman should be focusing on the job instead of peddling culture war rubbish. And so it goes. No one is forthright in their condemnation. No one is willing to hold Sunak responsible for the monster he installed. But clearly, Braverman's antics are troubling for some. But why? It's not the first time the Tories have run with racist campaigns. Recall much chuntering from the Conservative benches when Theresa May, also initially hailed as a "grown up", sent her racist vans around London's streets encouraging curtain twitchers to grass up their "illegal" neighbours? Or how the Tories spectacularly mishandled the Covid pandemic, causing many more deaths than need have been the case? Or the rise in premature deaths as the Tory cuts during the Dave/Osborne coalition bit into the social fabric? No, I didn't think you did. Because it didn't happen.

The Conservative conscience tends to come into play only under certain circumstances. You might recall how Iain Duncan Smith resigned as social security chopper-in-chief when Osborne came again for the disabled in his last budget. And how some Tories got very concerned about Boris Johnson's authoritarianism as he wriggled out of any kind of accountability. Was it that their principles were offended? Their sense of fairness? No, the conscience kicked in at the moment the Tories looked set on copping damage. Funny that. Being seen to ostentatiously trample over the most vulnerable? Make a mockery of constitutional conventions to the point of threatening a crisis of legitimacy?

The Braverman jitters are no different. There has been an improvement in Tory polling reported by most surveys over the last couple of weeks, but this represents a consolidation of their vote. Handy ahead of the local elections where those most likely to vote skew toward the Tories, but not much chance of reaching beyond those layers. In other words, what we're seeing is classic Tory short-termism. Sunak desperately needs these local elections to show a glimmer of a chance, and so appealing to the base might flatter the Tories, see them do not as badly as might be supposed, and show the next election isn't a foregone conclusion. The problem our Bakers, Ellwoods, Warsis, etc. have is the price paid is toxification that millions of people won't forget in a hurry. Not good when some of them would, at other times, be part of the coalition they need to win. Hence the worries and attacks of the conscience, for it is not their values that are troubled but the electoral viability of the Tories themselves.

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