Wednesday 31 May 2023

Betraying Remain

There are moments when the scales fall from the eyes and what is desired or admired is shown up to be anything but. Today was the occasion when the penny dropped for continuity remain. Their former champion, Mr Second-Referendum-with-an-Option-to-Remain took to the pages of the Daily Express to pledge there would be no return to the European Union, no customs union or single market, and no freedom of movement on his watch. Dear oh dear. Some might pretend that even now, Keir Starmer's embrace of Brexit is all a ruse and that after five years of trying to make it work he'll take us back into the EU, but credulity can only be stretched so far.

As with Starmer's proclamation on matters Europe, the role he played in splitting the Labour Party and trying to reverse Brexit are far down the memory hole. He writes that during the campaign he found plenty of Leave voters wanted the same sorts of things he did: "a better health service, better jobs, better wages, more security, a sense of control over their lives and their communities." A pity he wasn't as keen on upholding their votes when he spent the subsequent three years telling leavers they were wrong and he knew better than them. But when there is a leadership to win, disrespecting a referendum vote and shepherding one's party down the path to an historic defeat were but trifles next to his ambition.

But this isn't just about buttering up the declining Express's Tory-voting readership. It's an effort to close Brexit off as a political issue. Starmer wants to concentrate on Tory mismanagement of Brexit, the betrayal over levelling up, the grandiose promises, and the damage inflicted on the economy. This becomes much more difficult if the question of Brexit is reopened, despite polling registering record levels of Bregret. With the Tories flailing and consumed by more Boris Johnson mess, what would be helpful is something for them to rally around. As their war on woke efforts resonate with few people who aren't Tory journalists, re-opening Brexit would be like manna from heaven. Memories of Starmer's second referendum campaigning would be revived and Labour would have a more difficult time of it. Why turn into a long hard road when an easier, smoother shortcut to office is available?

This isn't without cost. Neutralising Brexit to the right re-opens it to the centre and the left. While the campaign to rerun the referendum had ulterior motives between 2016 and 2019, that wasn't the case for the hundreds of thousands who marched, who protest voted in the EU election debacle, who supported overturning the acceptance of Brexit in the Labour Party, and who backed Starmer on the strength of his European credentials. In the scheme of things, it is reasonable for Starmer to assume that dunking on this constituency will have fewer immediate consequences than antagonising leave opinion. And that's true. If losing council by-elections to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens is the butcher's price, that's entirely acceptable. After the election is when it will become difficult as continuity remain becomes an oppositional current, and one both these parties can exploit. But that's a problem for then.

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Tuesday 30 May 2023

Nick Cohen and Media Solidarity

At long last the sexual harassment allegations against Nick Cohen are out in the open. And that the New York Times had to be relied upon to lift the lid everyone on politics social media has known for years says everything about the solidarity among the country's top hacks, reporters, and opinion column writers. Establishment feminists have decided they're more establishment than feminist and have ridden to Cohen's rescue, while (albeit more low key) prominent industry women have signalled likewise. Another case of class beating out gender, you might say.

There are fewer closed occupations than journalism at the top papers and broadcasters and the situation has only got worse these last 30 years. Oxford leans into this, proudly boasting that "Oxford's student newspapers and radio stations have long been the training ground for some of Britain’s most successful journalists and broadcasters." A position at Oxbridge will plug aspirant journalists into the networks and affinities that can be worked to get a position in one of the London newsrooms. The old local press and regional TV are shrinking, and the paths from cub reporter running stories on off-licence robberies to anchoring national news shows have largely vanished. Add to this the politics one needs to get on - a semi-coy centre rightish/centre leftish outlook to start off with - narrows the already attenuated point of entry even further. The result of common entries, common contacts, common experiences, and common outlooks is groupthink over what are and aren't the most important issues, what is the truth and what isn't, an entitled attitude and, with all of that, a strong sense of a common identity and consensus about what their professional interests are.

This manifests itself in two ways. A fierce defence of what they take to be the status quo of politics: moderate (sounding) Conservatism and Milquetoast Labourism, and an antipathy toward anything that upsets the settled character of two-party politics. This is partly because, in politics journalism, success and promotion depends on the relationships one cultivates among ministers, shadow ministers, rising stars, bitter-but-connected losers, and old soaks on the backbenches. Being too enthusiastic in holding politicians to account is not the done thing if one wants to play the game. And if the masses suddenly intrude, as they did with Corbynism, the media will treat it like an abomination. This experience not only showed how the political mythologies they had created were just that and that they knew nothing about what they were employed to understand, Corbynism directly threatened their jobs as mouthpieces for/influences on leading politicians. Small wonder that some within the coterie are for limiting mass participation in politics altogether. They have an interest in keeping it a game for elites.

The second are attempts at operating a closed shop by expelling/blocking "outsiders". In recent years, there have been renewed efforts at excluding new left wing voices from the mainstream. We saw this with campaigns against Novara Media people taking up slots on TV that belonged to acceptable journalists as of right. Owen Jones with his outpost at The Graun has been similarly targetted. The megaphone transphobia of supposedly liberal journalists, and the incessant antisemitism campaign waged by the same are efforts attempting to close the upper echelons of the media even further, as well as making clear the costs of refusing to toe their party lines are higher in terms of commissions lost, promotions missed out on, and CVs filed in the bin.

Cohen figures here because of services rendered. He happily attacked the left and filled an entire book with straw men to make his media buddies feel comfortable cheering on Iraq and other military adventures. His was useful in the centrist assault on Corbynism, thereby playing his own part in saddling us with the Tories for another five wasted years, and has weighed in on the trans bashing. Because nothing speaks truth to power like piling on a vulnerable, under-attack minority. As a key figure in centrist media culture, he is seen as too useful to be brought down by his wandering hands and indiscriminately-offered dick pics. And so the performative solidarity shown by the liberal and centrist press pack with the MeToo movement is, and will always be trumped by the affections and feelings of real solidarity with a sex pest - as long as they use their individual position and prominence to protect their collective position and prominence.

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Sunday 28 May 2023

Untangling Reevenomics

Rachel Reeves hit the headlines last week after flashing her swanky first class pass on the plane to New York. But the reason for her trip was of more political import. Speaking at the Peterson Institute in Washington DC, Reeves outlined what the economics would be like under an incoming Labour government. Again, following Keir Starmer's NHS speech, this was more an exercise on contouring the policy to come rather than promising anything concrete. An approach we'll see repeated on social security, education, and the other "missions" before promises are made ahead of the next election.

What did Reeves have to say for herself? Her speech, which is expanded on in her pamphlet for Labour Together calls her approach "securonomics". This is based on two positions: a recentering of the nation state as the centre for economic policy making, and a move away from the deregulated phase of globalisation to one overseen by greater state management - based on multilateral agreements, and particularly a convergence of and greater cooperation between liberal democratic states.

Praising Joe Biden's economic policies, she approvingly notes that the United States has
A more active state, pursuing a modern industrial strategy, is selecting the areas where America must guarantee its ability to produce what America needs ... Your government is working in partnership with a dynamic open market, where the state does what a government does best. Making and shaping markets that are essential to America’s resilience and future prosperity. Meanwhile, the free market does what only it can do - innovating, competing, creating wealth.
Translating this into the UK means "good jobs, decent pay, strong public services and an end to relentless increases in the cost of living." Okay, but how does this differ from the Tories? Aren't they, on face value, for these things as well? Reeves's economics, she argues, differs because it starts with where Britain is and what its strengths are. The model is not the Singapore-on-Thames beloved of the Tories nor the idea of Germany, which used to so beguile George Osborne. Rather, the model is Britain - but better. For Reeves, building on Britain's strengths requires state promotion of green energy, life sciences, professional services, universities, remaining strategic industries, as well as promoting "financial resilience" for every household.

This requires state activism. Reeves talked about industrial strategy and her "green prosperity plan", as well as institutions like a Norway-style "national wealth fund" and the much-vaunted GB Energy, which is often sold as a state-owned renewable energy entity but is in actual fact a repackaging of the Private Finance Initiative - but for green electricity generation. This is also where Starmer's plan to fix public services comes in: Reeves sells the putative programme as the "removal of barriers that hold people back". This is premised on sorting out the NHS, childcare, more vocational education, and employment support "to get people back to work". In this light a Labour government would be working toward easier and better trading relationships with the EU when the trade deal is reviewed in 2025.

The speech got some excited. Martin Kettle for the Graun gushed that this was a vision for social democracy and was a break with Blairite thinking. Stacking in his argument's favour is the idea the politics should shape the economics, though in Reeves's hands state intervention is just technocratic common sense. No need for the socialist gloss as per Tony Crosland. It's economically efficient, and has little do do with social justice which even the Blairites used to invoke for their own purposes. Multilateral cooperation sounds nice, until you look at foreign affairs custom and practice and see it as a realisation of the West (and Japan) pooling their efforts to remain at the top of the global economic tree. And, not mentioned by Kettle but noted here a while back, a move to tripartite industrial governance with the state, business, and the trade unions each having their say about economic policy. Though into this corporatist mix Reeves adds universities as one of the "partners". Interesting.

There are other items in Reeves's speech and pamphlet that do sound decidedly Blairish. She wants to see "dynamic markets" and more competition, which means breaking up concentrations and monopolies. I'll believe that when I see it. She wants some deregulation, such as reform of the planning laws - in line with Starmer's recent desire to see more building on the green belt. There's a promise of reforming corporate governance to tackle the short-termism of shareholder value, and a change to business taxation to encourage longer-term investment. If the latter sounds like a bung ... But perhaps the biggest tell, and one that will assuage the UK's economics establishment is her continued commitment to Bank of England independence. That's going to be music to the City's ears. As a former Bank economist, of course she'll be their woman in Number 11. That, more than anything, says no matter what happens with governance, state strategies, and industrial councils the core relations between the Bank, the Treasury, and the City are going to weather the next Labour government and that the priorities of finance and commercial capital will continue its hegemony over the policy preferences, personnel, and habits of the core state apparatus. To throw things into sharp relief, even someone as awful as Kemi Badenoch favours breaking up this cosy relationship. Then again, even when the Bank was under political control did post-war Labour governments challenge the power of the City, or did their best to cultivate it?

Assuming Labour accomplishes its restructuring of the state (or does it half-arsed, which is more likely given custom and practice), this will open up political opportunities and dangers for the labour movement. Reeves is apparently relaxed with a return to collective bargaining and the extension of workers' rights, but as we saw with post-war trade unionism partial integration into the state incentivises labour movement growth and firmly weds union officialdom to industrial priorities. Let's be clear, it's better for trade unions to be in that position than what we have now. It creates a space for labour movement consolidation and for that reason alone means there's a qualitative difference between Labour and the Tories, but let there be no illusions. What Reevenomics offers is a more favourable terrain for struggle, not a land of milk and honey.

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Friday 26 May 2023

Local Council By-Elections May 2023

This month saw 96,635 votes cast in 39 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 11 council seats changed hands. For comparison with April's results, see here.

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

* There were no by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were four Independent clashes this month
**** Others were Communist Party of Britain (150), Liberal (10), Reform UK (75), UKIP (114)

By-elections-wise, not actually a catastrophe for the Tories. Yes, they lost out on the popular vote and dropped another five councillors, but compared to the massacre at the local elections these set of results aren't too bad. Labour however underperformed on the same showing, leaving May with two fewer by-election seats - the first time Labour have ended the month down for about 18 months. Does it indicate anything? Probably not, it being more a case of just how the by-elections fell. But what if it did?

If this is the start of something, it is likely to only impact by-elections only. The Liberal Democrats and Greens matched their local election tallies, and are doing well mostly at the Tories' expense. What is possible is by-elections might increasingly become occasions for both parties to increase their councillor count with Labour doing less well. Partly because there's little enthusiasm for Labour, but also - as we'll see in something I've got on the back burner about the Greens - there remain plenty of annoyed former Tory voters who won't be voting Labour as a protest, never mind in a general election.

4th May
Brentwood, South Weald, LDem gain from Con
Cambridge, Castle, LDem gain from Lab
Cambridge, Coleridge, Lab hold
Cambridgeshire, Arbury, Lab hold
Cambridgeshire, Soham South and Haddenham, Con hold
Cannock Chase, Cannock East, Lab gain from Con
Cannock Chase, Hednesford South, Grn gain from Ind
Dudley, St. Thomas’s, Lab hold
Durham, Chester-le-Street East, Lab gain from Con
Essex, Laindon Park and Fryern, Lab hold
Gloucestershire, Highnam, Con hold
Hampshire, Purbrook and Stakes South, Con hold
Kent, Sheppey, Con hold
Kingston upon Hull, Central, Lab hold
Kirklees, Ashbrow, Lab hold
Knowsley, Prescot North, LDem hold
Lincolnshire, Eagle and Hykeham West, Con hold
Manchester, Ardwick, Lab hold
Milton Keynes, Central Milton Keynes, Lab hold
Newcastle upon Tyne, North Jesmond, LDem gain from Lab
Norfolk, Swaffham, Con hold
North Tyneside, Camperdown, Lab hold
Nottinghamshire, Kirkby South, Ind hold
Pendle, Vivary Bridge, Con hold
Peterborough, Park, Con gain from Lab
Preston, Preston Rural East, Con hold
Reading, Park, Grn hold
Sheffield, Manor Castle, Lab hold
Suffolk, Felixstowe Coastal, LDem gain from Con
Suffolk, Priory Heath, Lab hold
Surrey, Walton South and Oatlands, LDem gain from Con
Three Rivers, Chorleywood South and Maple Cross, LDem hold
Westmorland and Furness, Old Barrow and Hindpool, Lab hold
West Oxfordshire, Ducklington, Con hold
West Sussex, East Grinstead Meridian, Con hold
Worcestershire, Malvern Chase, Grn gain from LDem
Worthing, Central, Lab hold

17th May
Stroud, Painswick & Upton, Grn gain from Con

22nd May
Isles of Scilly, St Mary's, Ind hold

25th May
North Yorkshire, Eastfield, Ind gain from Lab

Wednesday 24 May 2023

Why Has Unite Endorsed Gerard Coyne?

The starter's pistol fires and they're off. In the race for Labour's selection for West Bromwich East, coming up on the right we have Sarah Coombes, former media spinner for Sadiq Khan and constituency worker when it was Tom Watson's manor. And vying to elbow her out of the same lane we have Gerard Coyne, twice failed candidate for General Secretary of Unite, creature of the once all-powerful right wing WestMids machinery, and a firm favourite of Labour First. Both Coombes and Coyne have party estabishment support and trade union endorsements, as you might expect. But readers might be surprised to learn that Coombes, who has no labour movement track record I'm aware of, handily beats Coyne in union nominations. Unison, GMB, CWU, they're all on the Sarah train with four other unions. Meanwhile, the man who's made a handsome living from the union movement could only muster the support of two: USDAW (as per type) and ... Unite.

Yes, you read that correctly. The union that, during the Len McCluskey years, tried its damnedest to dig out Coyne's tick-like attachment has turned around and given him their blessings in his bid for Parliament. For our friends over at Skwawkbox, it's more evidence of the union swinging to the right under Sharon Graham's leadership. I'm no so sure. For one, right wingers - particularly since "partnership" and "service" unionism came to prominence in the late 1980s - aren't typically in the habit of running on programmes emphasising the building of industrial muscle, and then delivering on that promise. While the big disputes have taken the headlines, Unite along with the GMB and the new small independent unions have won impressive victories across the country. Graham has turned away from amateurish lobbying of Labour to putting Unite's resources into workplace activism, and hundreds of thousands of workers and workplace power is in a better place as a result.

This comes with its downsides. McCluskey's very hands-on approach to Labour Party politics might have pleased some, but it by no means played well in all corners of Unite where there is a long tradition of syndicalism, apolitical economism, and even Conservative support. In 2021 during the crunch election to succeed McCluskey, Steve Turner was (mostly) the choice of the left as the best man to defeat Coyne's right wing bid while Graham used her organising nous and, arguably, greater appreciation of Unite's grass roots, to beat both of them. Her message that Unite should focus on industrial matters instead of party politics was certainly economistic, but it resonated with layers of the membership who (rightly or wrongly) perceived the previous general secretary as more interested in the Westminster circus than winning disputes. Graham had her eye on the ball, her opponents didn't.

How does this relate to Unite endorsing Coyne? You don't need to scratch out an unconvincing argument that Graham is a closet right winger. For a start, this presumes what happens in the labour movement is determined by Westminster and PLP politicking and that it has little agency of its own. In act, it's the other way round. A result of one part economism, two-parts consolidation. As Skwawkbox has reported extensively and critically, the new general secretary has been securing her base and conferring positions on her allies. Making sure Unite returns her at the next GS election and that it sees through her confrontational approach to industrial relations is her priority. What Keir Starmer and Labour are saying doesn't matter much as long as they don't veer onto her turf. Unite's nomination of its former bete noire is what one might expect if the political balance of the Parliamentary Labour Party is way down the list than, say, ensuring a contender with name recognition and a decent following among the union's membership is pensioned off to Westminster. Not a plot, not a capitulation to Starmer's Labour nor a cosying up to a much reduced WestMids Labour First. Unite's backing of Coyne is a simple case of removing a potential threat from contention.

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Remembering Tina Turner

Probably the most cliched tribute anyone will ever think of, but is there a better way to celebrate Tina Turner than loudly playing her best known hit?

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Boris Johnson: Another Fine Mess

Just when you think you're done providing Boris Johnson content, along comes some more. Except this time, a good case of popcorn is best advised. News broke earlier that the Cabinet Office have referred the former Prime Minister to the police. Yes, I had to give it the double take as well.

In preparation for the upcoming inquiry into the appalling mishandling of the Covid crisis, the Cabinet Office had sight of Johnson's private diary entries. In them he apparently recounts holding not insubstantial gatherings at Chequers in defiance of the Covid rules. These events were not employees or for work, as per Johnson's rote defence of his rule breaking shenanigans in Number 10, but shindigs for friends. Johnson's lawyers have written in to say they were lawful and no rules were broken, but the civil servants preparing the papers had no choice but to hand his submissions over to the plod. The Met and Thames Valley are now flicking through the evidence.

What's surprising about this affair is not that there weren't parties. Everyone in the country has grown accustomed to the idea that rules merely exist for Johnson to break them. No, it's that news has not come out about them until now. Obviously, as a respecter of due process this blog will refrain commenting further until more details are in the public domain. But it's worth noting this story handily becomes public knowledge just as Rishi Sunak is under pressure over his handling of Suella Braverman's latest stupidity.

Bad timing, however, for Johnson. Next month the Privileges Committee will return their verdict about the former PM's lockdown lawlessness. Already, Johnson's hope for a tap on the wrist suffered a blow after Margaret Ferrier's appeal against her 30-day Commons suspension for breaking Covid rules fell flat on its face. You might recall Ferrier took the train while she had Covid at the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic. A no-no certainly, but she didn't move heaven and earth to avoid accountability for it - unlike someone else. Given her punishment, the pending recall petition and inevitable by-election, the smart money isn't on Johnson scraping by with a lesser penalty. Throw the Chequers gathering into the equation and the mood accompanying the Committee's deliberations couldn't be worse.

Writing on Twitter Tuesday evening, friend-of-the-Tory-stars Christopher Hope reports of a "gloomy mood" among Tory right wingers. The "Whitehall blob" is to blame. “We are like being gobbled up like we are in Pac Man” chuntered one anonymous backbencher. Actually, no. When Johnson won his thumping majority the Tories were the masters of their own political destinies. They were too big for Labour to lay a glove on them, and yet here we are. The Tories are in trouble entirely because of their own doings. Johnson didn't have to break lockdown rules. Liz Truss didn't have to trolley the economy. Sunak didn't have to re-appoint Braverman, or decide doing nothing would be the hallmark of his government. The Tories might be in long-term decline, but rather than dealing with their crisis of political reproduction they've have chosen to ride it into opposition from whence a rapid recovery is unlikely to come. If there is a conspiracy, rather than prattling about civil servants having the knives out for them the Tories would do well to reflect on the patterns of stupidity and self-destruction their party births with unerring regularity.

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Monday 22 May 2023

Patients and Profits

In his famous address to the Albanian people, Enver Hoxha said "This year will be harder than last year. However, it will be easier than next year." Stirring words and ones Keir Starmer might have quoted while discussing the recurring winter crises in his much-trailed NHS speech earlier on Monday. As health is one of his "five missions", what was said here is almost guaranteed to go into Labour's next manifesto.

Starmer spoke about the scourge of health inequalities and the reversal of life expectancy under the Tories. He identified the "three big killers" and what Labour wants to do about them: reduce cardiovascular disease by a quarter, diagnose 75% of cancers while they're still stage one, and drive down the incidence of suicide among younger people. Also repeated was what he called the biggest expansion of NHS training in the organisation's history, funded by the removal of the non dom tax status. And the latest idea got an airing: the sharing of waiting lists so patients could opt to be treated at hospitals with shorter waiting lists. This would be underpinned by a more collaborative culture across the NHS, which was coming into being before Matt Hancock kyboshed it. This might help manage he backlog crisis around the edges, but is hardly a major policy announcement.

Indeed, that was not the point of the speech. Starmer wanted to hammer home the message that what the NHS needs more than money is reform. He identified the "three shifts" that would structure the remodelling of the NHS. The first would be moving care out of hospitals and into the community. What he called the 'neighbourhood health service'. This would entail improving GP access and make it more sustainable. This means moving away from the practice model and its gradual replacement by salaried GPs who would be deployed to serve all communities. In other words, a possible end to the GP shortages that particularly afflict inner city working class areas. Appointments would be "modernised" with an end to the 8am rush, and a pledge to bring back the family doctor. Clearing hospital backlogs by integrating health and social care would be a priority with joined up care in the community and a commitment to reverse the crisis in the care industry with a foundational fair pay agreement.

The second shift is movement away from treating sickness to prevention. This is a return to one of the objectives of the New Labour years with its keen emphasis on public health strategies. Starmer argued this had cost, or rather savings implications by taking weight off the NHS as well as heading problems off at the pass. He promised a revolution in mental health treatment, which would include 8,500 new community-based mental health professionals, dedicated support in schools, and four week maximum wait guarantee. The other new announcement, which was the placing of vaping, junk food, sugary snack advertising after the watershed and banning their marketing at children was lumped in here.

The third shift was technology, and specifically the rolling out of a digital service on a par with all the other digital services we take for granted. He condemned the wasted opportunity of the NHS Covid app and suggested he would like to see similar apps developed further to transform our relation to the NHS. Looking forward to using them to book appointments and making appropriate self-referrals, while ensuring patients had control over their data. This would enable us to make better choices and access faster care. He also spoke breathlessly of using Artificial Intelligence for the scanning of results, which are quicker and more accurate than doctors sifting through x-rays by hand. He wanted an agile NHS, one that had incentives to innovate but greater planning about the introduction of technologies.

In all, taken at face value this is the sort of thing you might expect a would-be Labour Prime Minister to be saying about the NHS. The main thing is a public service that works, and one crucial to Starmer's programme of repairing the popular legitimacy of the state. But there were a couple of questions for which there were no satisfactory answers. One got aired four or five times by reporters: what about the money? We know the Tories' refusal to pay the market rate for medical staff has the happy consequence of pushing the NHS toward becoming residualised. Strikes disrupt the service, people leave, everything gets worse and more opt for private treatment, leaving the queues and the exhausted, demoralised staff to those who are unable to pay. A boon for private health, certainly. Starmer said very little about pay, except for an approving aside on the New Labour years and how much nurses pay improved then. It's not that the Labour leader, Wes Streeting and the rest don't know pay need addressing, it's that they prefer a politically easy life. By being non-committal, the implacable Tory press can't use whatever figure to tie Labour up in knots over its spending plans and add to the narrative that the NHS is an unfillable money pit. Instead, that can is kicked down the road nearer to the election and all we hear between now and then are the new targets, the sexy technologies, and the overall direction of change.

The second issue is privatisation, which didn't get an airing today (apart from a vague gesture toward partnerships). That probably has something to do with how ill-received it was last time. And the small matter that using private providers to treat NHS patients is not really spare capacity as such. As is well known the likes of Streeting have received plenty of cash from for-profit health interests, but that doesn't mean the continued residualisation of the NHS is on the cards. During the Blair and Brown years, Labour became the preferred party of some sections of British capital because parts of the state were put out to tender and profits made from delivering government contracts. In line with Starmer's technocratic bent, these firms, in all likelihood, will be invited, or "partnered" into a reformed NHS providing some of the services the ambitious renovation demands. All under the likely guise of offering their "expertise". There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than one way of making sure state money ends up in private coffers. Outright privatisation won't happen, but a new set of contracting-out relationships that provide firms guaranteed incomes and guaranteed profits will.

In all, Starmer will be happy with the reception his speech received. It is Labour-enough sounding to settle activist jitters of those worried his moves to the right include abandoning traditional Labour ground. It will have frustrated the Tories and their press because there are few angles from which this can be attacked from the right. Reading between the lines health unions can cut through the Starmerist cypher and glimpse the prospect of better pay deals, an end to the recruitment crisis, and less pressure, and those ever-so-philanthropic private health interests can see where they fit into the picture.

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Sunday 21 May 2023

When Imagination Fails

There are things that annoy me about Greg Bear's Eon.

From the point of view of 1985, the year it was published, Eon has some interesting and imaginative leaps. A hollowed out asteroid from an alternate human future turning up in Earth orbit. The thinking about the architecture of its interior and how cities might make the best use of lower gravity and a cylindrical-shaped environment. A chamber that, thanks to some physics jiggery-pokery, stretches into infinity. How a singularity might be tamed, worked, and used for transportation. The use of fancy divining rods that find the location of and can sink wells into other universes along "The Way". The use of holographics for interior decoration, body adornment, and communication (speech 1,300 years hence has largely been replaced by ... emojis). The transcendence of the basic human form and the option to take on any physical shape one wishes. The storage of personalities and their depositing in the memory banks of their home, Axis City. A leap into entirely post-human reproduction where personalities are fashioned by "parents" in the digital environment and upon maturation can acquire physical bodies. And more mind-boggingly weird physics where The Way existed prior to its moment of creation.

Of Eon, all of this and more won it plaudits then and since for spinning out so many ideas and concepts that could be hinges on which to hang more limited science fiction novels. Some of these tropes have been done to death since, others have attracted less attention. But what interests me about Eon are not the flights of fancy but Bear's failures of imagination.

What might the society of the far future look like? Despite being a mature post-human civilisation capable of building its own pocket universe, getting beyond a presidential republic resembling a mix of the US system sitting atop a Belgian/Netherlands-style consociational system is not within the wit of our descendents. And that means capitalism is in the mix, too. This society can master the mysteries of physical laws and manipulate them as they see fit, but wage labour persists and Axis City squats on The Way in a manner akin to the City of London. It is a regulator of cross-gate traffic, managing the commerce that flits across The Way and serves buyers and sellers in different dimensions - for which it receives commissions to sustain itself. All this infinite land with infinite possibilities, and the only reality Bear could conceive for advanced humans is a society immediately familiar to Adam Smith.

The character of politics of the future are, if anything, even worse. There are plenty of expository moments as per hard SF custom and practice, and we get glimpses about how social problems are dealt with. Crime is treated as a personality disorder. Criminals and deviants are not treated with empathy or understanding, but become the objects of engineering and programming. The forms of social domination attendant in capitalist society exert a silent presence as problem people are categorised, individually pathologised, and altered to fit. Even more bizarrely we're led to believe people 1,300 years from now have stubborn affections for national identities that largely perished in the fires of nuclear war. Flashing flags in one's array of emoticons is apparently the done thing in post-human circles. And call it a daft in-joke or plain ignorance about how politics works, one of the main factions among Axis City's inhabitants are the Naderites. They tend toward the aesthetics and style of the early 21st century - when the nuclear bombs fell - and with varying degrees of commitment eschew the post-human accoutrements of their contemporaries. Their name derives from US consumer champion, environmentalist, and some time presidential candidate Ralph Nader. We're led to believe his activism and example became the basis of a post-war political creed that was suspicious of technology and promoted a Bill and Ted-style be excellent to each other ethic. This is utterly nonsensical, betrays zero materialist understanding of how even liberal democratic politics works, but is consistent with the dismal politics of Bear's setting. In his capitalist utopia, the only real politics there's room for are around consumption, consumer rights, and consumer identities.

Eon is an interesting read, and still worthwhile almost 40 years after publication. The passage of time might have dimmed the hard science imaginary shown of here. But what truly dates it is Bear's failure to show any respect for, let alone awareness of the realities described, explained, and imagined by the social and political sciences.

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A Racist Clown Car of a Career

What's the point of having power if you can't abuse it? An aim Suella Braverman could be accused of pursuing, if her attempt to get preferential treatment for dealing with her speeding penalty is anything to go by. Widely reported in the press and on all the politics shows, the already-disgraced Home Secretary attempted to arrange a one-on-one speeding course to get out of a fine and points on her licence. Quite why, we don't know. She cited security "concerns", but was the avoidance of political embarrassment a calculation? Or simply playing the big I am? My money is on the last one.

There is an abuse of power here. Braverman asked civil servants to engineer a more convenient "punishment", and they refused to do so. That is the established fact, and neither Therese Coffey nor Rishi Sunak were able to offer any defences. In what should be a straightforward resigning matter, instead Labour and the Liberal Democrats have called for an investigation by the government's ethics monitor. Because accusing Tory ministers of outright corruption is not the done thing, it seems.

As you might recall, Braverman has a bit of form when it comes to breaking rules governing ministerial behaviour. No sooner was she appointed Home Secretary during the Liz Truss interlude that she was found leaking confidential documents to her coterie of friendly backbenchers. On that occasion she resigned, only to have had her career resurrected six days later so she could peddle culture war rubbish on Sunak's behalf. And there is her appearance at the National Conservatism conference a week ago. Is showing up on a platform from which Sunak's briefcase Toryism, despite going along with the Nat-Cs' racism and authoritarianism, the actions of a loyal minister? Or for that matter, using the occasion to launch one's own leadership campaign to replace her soi disant boss after the inevitable defeat?

Commenting from Hiroshima, Sunak did not explicitly say he was backing Braverman, preferring to hide behind his not knowing a great deal about it. But if past behaviour is any indication, there won't be an investigation, let alone a sacking. And from the Prime Minister's point of view, this makes political sense. The Home Secretary is a useful lightning rod that attracts the opprobrium of the Tory party's sundry liberal and left opponents while managing to tell the shrinking base that the government is delivering on their "very real concerns". Simultaneously it puts distance between Sunak and Braverman's policies, even though he's been very upfront about them being his priorities. It's like he wants Britain's asylum policy to be as awful and as racist as possible, but it's a responsibility he's contracted out. A tricky if not impossible balancing act were it not for the twisted mediascape we're afflicted with. Sunak also wants to keep her close because despite her abuses, dictatorial inclinations, and open declaration of disloyalty she's not on the backbenches fomenting grievances and coalescing opposition. Not that she has much of a base anyway and, indeed, by employing her Sunak is affording her the opportunity to build one. But Sunak is not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to knowing his party and the respective weights of the would-be contenders and potential and actual malcontents.

It's true we'd like to see the speedy exit of Braverman from the Home Office, followed by a screeching crash on the back benches but, unfortunately, we're going to have to put up with her hogging the political slow lane until the general election pile up. She's not going anywhere unless she uncharacteristically does the decent thing, pulls over to the hard shoulder, and abandons her racist clown car of a career.

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Friday 19 May 2023

Artificial Intelligence Is Not Artificial

Taking an impromptu break from writing, in case you hadn't noticed. Here is a short and accessible discussion on the class politics of artificial intelligence and the con job being perpetrated on us by the tech bros.

Monday 15 May 2023

Braverman's Leadership Campaign Launch

The lads over at the National Conservatism conference are fizzing with novel ideas. Danny Kruger argued that marriage is the only basis for a cohesive, functioning society. Frank Furedi talked about the virtues of celebrating national identities. Katharine Birbalsingh warned that the culture pushed by schools will cause us to "lose our country". Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested tackling climate change will make people poorer, and Suella Braverman said complaining about too many asylum seekers living here was not bigoted. As forecast, the conference has proven to be a byword for pushing authoritarian right wing politics under the guise of freedom and common sense, tropes and gambits that very definitely have never been used before anywhere.

Apart from Rees-Mogg casually admitting that the government's voter ID scheme was a "gerrymander", interest alights upon Braverman's speech. It wasn't particularly original. More a "greatest hits" of material reminding us why Rishi Sunak employed her in the first place. She attacked the left for spreading pessimism and division, and for demanding that Britain should apologise for its past. "Don't they know we abolished slavery?" she said, while neglecting how it was aggressively maintained by the UK and its predecessor states for centuries, financing its wars of conquest, and providing the capital for the industrial revolution. She attacked the concept of white sin and said no one is guilty of what happened before they were born. True, but when the state and the class enriched by slavery is still with us and finds plenty of defenders wanting to bury Britain's real history, one might suggest those playing down historical crimes believe they are some way responsible for them. Otherwise they might not get so exercised.

Braverman droned on. We heard about the left's authoritarianism, of how the critique of inequality inevitably leads to the suppression of freedom. Just don't talk about Tory protest laws. She had a go at the politics of grievance with all the chutzpah of a Tory on manoeuvres. She pivoted toward the anti-expert ranting of Margaret Thatcher, saying we should be sceptical of "self-appointed gurus, experts, and elites", while speaking at a conference of self-appointed gurus, experts, and elites telling Britons how their lives should be lived. And, hilariously, she warned against pitching the country into a US-style culture war. Not because they're bad in and of themselves, but because they might turn conservative against conservative. Which, of course, won't stop her victimising the groups the Tories just love to victimise.

Today's NatCon conference might as well have dubbed itself the launch of Braverman's leadership campaign. However, unlike Priti Patel who did her star turn at Saturday's Conservative Democratic Organisation gathering, the Home Secretary's record is not as spotless as her putative rival. While Patel affected support for the dear departed Boris Johnson at the time, Braverman - you might remember - announced her decision to stand in the contest to replace Johnson before he had resigned his office, and called on him to go as he clung on for dear life. There will be Johnson fans among the Tories who haven't forgot what they see as her cowardice, and as limited as Braverman is she has enough self-awareness to know her past behaviour could be a barrier to her ambitions. Therefore the BNP-adjacent posturing on all issues is not an expression of deep conviction, but as per all political sociopaths a function of her careerism. Going extreme is overcompensating for plunging the knife into Johnson and works as a big attract sign in the hope her previous inglorious moments slip from the collective mind. Whether it works or not we will have to see when the post-Sunak leadership election swings round, but one thing's for certain. With her and Patel vying for the top job, the political tone of the competition will mark a new low in the history of the Conservative Party.

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