Monday 31 July 2023

Fossil Fools

100 new gas and oil drilling licences. Just as southern Europe has baked under temperatures not seen for thousands of years. In the world according to the Tory imaginary, if climate change and global heating are a thing it means very little for these chilly, rainy isles. Actually, it might makes things a touch more pleasant. And besides, how can our carbon emissions matter when big pollutors like China, the United States, and others are throwing gigatons of the stuff into the atmosphere? Managing a straight face early on Monday, Rishi Sunak said more oil and gas exploration in the North Sea is consistent with the UK's commitment to Net Zero. Borrowing arguments from Liz Truss's leadership campaign, more fossil fuels means lower energy bills here and more energy security. No more dependence on nasty despots. And British oil and gas extraction is nicer because we save on those emissions from having to import from far flung destinations. Lastly, Sunak re-announced that £20bn was getting thrown at carbon capture and storage technologies.

Quite apart from the idiocy of explicitly associating the Tory party with the vast scale of social murder, ecocide, and destruction climate breakdown is starting to wreak, going hard on fossil fuel extraction makes little sense at first glance. Sunak's announcement wouldn't do the share prices of the two UK-based oil giants much harm as per tradition, but there doesn't seem to be much in this for anyone. After 40 years of sucking it up from under the sea bed, chances of finding billions more barrels of oil and cubic metres of gas are vanishingly slight. Gas production is at the level last seen in the mid-1980s and you'd have to go back to the late 70s to see oil pumping at a rate this low. With very little left, is is far more costly to extract than throwing up wind turbines and plastering roofs with solar panels. As the UK has an (undeserved) reputation for being a global leader on environmental matters, what is to be gained from frittering away this useful bit of soft power? Sadly, it aids the PR machines of BP and Shell as they go about the world prospecting away. If the UK thinks its okay to start drilling again, then what's to stop countries who discover fresh oil and gas reserves from exploiting them - with the handy assistance of the aforementioned companies, of course. It weakens the global push and moral force against fossil fuels and therefore emissions, and that suits the oil giants just fine.

This is where carbon capture and storage comes in. As a technology it is unproven. Doling research monies out to CCS is not bad in and of itself. As part of a decarbonisation effort it is worth thinking about what difference it can make to current CO2 levels, but it absolutely should not be PR for yet more exploration and exploitation in the manner Sunak employed it today. But that is exactly what the technology has been so far - political technology with no tangible results, apart greenwashing oil companies' business-as-usual.

As per the habits of the Tories, it's the politics that are driving the economics. After their motorists' manifesto, they're exploiting an opportunity Labour gifted them. After back-pedalling on the green new deal, Keir Starmer panicked and said Labour would honour existing exploration licences once it entered government. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. Because of cowardice, ineptitude, and the unwillingness/inability to field a political argument the Tories have sprung a political trap on Starmer and now, if he sticks to his promise, "green" Labour could oversee a greater expansion of North Sea drilling than anything seen during the Tory years. And, undoubtedly, once in opposition the Conservatives will make great hay of Labour missing its decarbonisation targets. Some nice point scoring for Sunak there, but as part of the mass appeal the Tories are hoping promises about energy security and lower bills (which won't be the consequence of more North Sea drilling) gives them another wedge to drive between Labour and its support.

Rest assured, tit's not going to work. After the Uxbridge by-election, the Tories think going heavy on cars, oil, and rubbishing what a former leader dubbed "the green crap" will see their electoral parts-per-million climb faster than atmospheric carbon. They are very badly mistaken. The overwhelming message taken by millions of people from their crazed doubling down on fossil fuels is that the Tories don't care about the planet, that they're reckless or in denial, and they represent an existential threat to our civilisation. Not exactly the perception a party wanting to win a general election should be inviting.

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Sunday 30 July 2023

On the Road to Nowhere

I'm almost embarrassed for the Conservative Party. While the Tories taking up the "cause" of the motorist was obvious after barely hanging on at the Uxbridge by-election, I wasn't quite anticipating how all in they're prepared to go. In a ridiculous interview with The Telegraph, Rishi Sunak tells Britain car owners that he's on "their side". Forgetting for the moment that motorists are also public sector workers, energy users, food shoppers, wage earners etc. Sunak is banking on those things that make drivers' lives a misery like, um, low traffic neighbourhoods, will re-ignite interest in the Tories. He says "When I’m lucky enough to get home to North Yorkshire, it’s more representative of how most of the country is living, where cars are important." Might he be on to something? After decades of attacks on public transport, outside of most towns and cities life without a car is very difficult. This is reflected in the number of cars on Britain's roads, which presently stand at 33.2 million. The Tory galaxy brain has surmised there is a voter pool here worth fishing in.

Sunak might talk about getting home to his constituency, but with his fondness for private jets and helicopters chances are it's not a run that's overfamiliar to him. Having difficulties with the very basic competencies of everyday life, and the old hoohah about keeping his Green Card are just episodes of an existence lived at a gilded remove from that of most people. The Tories know they have to make their man relatable, and waxing lyrical about the freedom and beauty of the car is one of them. Just don't mention that his garage must be bigger than most houses to store all four of the motors he owns.

Obviously, as the motorists' friend Sunak isn't about to announce lower petrol prices or anything that might help purses and wallets. But what it prepares the ground for is a link between traffic calming measures, the Boris Johnson-originated ultra low emission zone in London, green taxes and, ultimately, Britain's energy security. In a typically dishonest attack on Keir Starmer, he pushes further along with the attempt to frighten receptive punters about what a Labour government will mean. I.e. Less energy security, more dependence on Putin's Russia for energy, and fewer well-paying oil jobs in the North Sea. I'm shocked, shocked I tell you that the Tories are yet again pushing fossil fuel interests. As ever, they affect to help the little guy while servicing the big guy.

This new strategy can't be isolated from everything else they're doing. Becoming the motorists' party shares the lane with also being the anti-woke party, and the anti-refugee party. The outlines of the populist campaign the Tories want to run between now and the next election are visible for all to see. In the absence of Brexit and anything substantial to hang off the Labour leader, the briefcase "sensible" Sunak is trying to introduce multiple wedge issues that oppose groups of unsullied people against undesirable others and their constant ally, the liberal/remain/woke elite. In each case, through a combination of Tory rhetoric, policy positioning, and media framing the Tories are trying to summon forth angry collectives who are exercised by these issues to the exclusion of all else. The problem they have is Sunak is singularly ill-suited to being the figurehead of such a campaign (especially when internal opposition occasionally threatens to seize the wheel), and as a rule the public are actually not minded to ignore stagnating wages and the galloping cost of living. Which is what the by-elections the Tories are choosing to ignore have decidedly told us.

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Saturday 29 July 2023

Local Council By-Elections July 2023

This month saw 38,673 votes cast in 16 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Seven council seats changed hands. For comparison with June's results, see here.

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

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There was one set of Independent clashes this month
**** Others contesting seats in July were Heritage Party (55), Reform (278, 23, 58, 61, 174), Scottish Family Party (42), TUSC (52, 12), Yorkshire Party (28)

This is a very significant month for the Greens. Firstly, they "won" coming out of July's by-elections with the largest net gain. Which, if memory serves, is the first time they have done so. Second, I believe the party has scored its highest vote share since I've been tracking council by-elections (over 10 years now, where has the time gone?). And lastly, this is the first set of "proper" by-elections where the Green popular vote has overtaken the Liberal Democrats ever. If you don't like the Greens, that's tough because there are going to be an awful lot more votes like this over the coming years. Especially after Labour takes office.

As for the rest, there was nothing to write home about. No spectacular Liberal Democrat gains. The Tories won two new seats but lost three, and Labour netted a new seat while losing two, one of which was exchanged with the Conservatives. Apart from that, there's no real news except for the historic Green performance.

4 July
Cambridge, King's Hedges, Con gain from Lab

6 July
Kent, Maidstone Central, LDem hold
South Lanarkshire, East Kilbride West, Lab gain from SNP

13 July
City of London, Castle Baynard, Ind hold
Newham, Boleyn, Ind gain from Lab
Newham, Wall End, Lab hold
Norfolk, West Depwade, Grn gain from Con
Rotherham, Dinnington, Con hold

20 July
Ceredigion, Llanfarian, LDem hold
Swindon, St Margaret & South Marston, Con gain from Lab
Worcester, Nunnery, Lab hold

27 July
Buckinghamshire, Denham, Con hold
East Sussex, Heathfield & Mayfield, Grn gain from Con
Plymouth, Plymstock Dunstone, Lab gain from Con
Plymouth, St Peter & The Waterfront, Lab hold
Warrington, Paulton North, Lab hold

Wednesday 26 July 2023

Along Comes Another New Left Wing Party

A new left party, you say? Announcing itself to the world on Tuesday, Transform is the newest kid on the block. But hold on a moment, is it really? Firstly, it's not a party as such but rather a call to form one that, apparently, will be called Transform. Issued by the Breakthrough Party, Left Unity, the People's Alliance of the Left (hold on, isn't that a compact between these two parties?), and Liverpool Community Independents, there are a few relative notables on board too. Like Thelma Walker, ex Labour MP and former candidate for the Northern Independence Party, broadcaster and troll target India Willoughby, my old mucker Derek Wall - ex Green speaker, and BFAWU president Ian Hodson. It has a 10-point charter of principles committing it to class politics, understands these are inseparable from so-called identity politics, is internationalist and anti-imperialist and, among other things, seeks to intervene electorally, industrially, and at the community and street level. People who support the call for a new party are invited to sign their declaration, and almost 3,000 have done so at the time of writing.

Isn't this all just a little bit of history repeating? In the post-Corbyn era of post-Corbyn regroupments, the Northern Independence Party made the biggest media splash but never amounted to much. Though its founder, Philip Proudfoot, is among the signatories. At around the same time the Breakthrough Party was established, and in a short time enjoyed more local authority success than the longer-established TUSC, attracting some defections at parish and district council level from sitting councillors. There is also the Harmony Party who used to have online meetings ... and that's about it, from what I can tell. Breakthrough and NIP later formed an alliance with Left Unity and founded the People's Alliance of the Left, which TUSC was initially on board with. And it wasn't long before they were kicked out for its opportunist cosying up to George Galloway, just he joined in on the establishment attack on trans people. The Socialist Party, who used to have much sectarian point-scoring fun with the Socialist Workers Party for co-habiting with Galloway in Respect find themselves doing exactly the same thing: burying their own politics.

Anyone starting a new party project has to answer two questions. What is it for, and how does it plan to realise its purpose. Transform's platform signposts a direction of travel, but how is it any different to Breakthrough, for instance? What does it have that Breakthrough hasn't got? Given the lack of sectarian baggage that doomed the efforts of the Socialist Labour Party and Socialist Alliance, it's not clear why there has to be a new body that everyone dissolves into. The second issue is the competition. The existing far left ... exists and, unlike Transform, does have a degree of ideological conformity that is attractive to radically-minded newcomers to the left and labour movement. For instance, Socialist Appeal literature these days urges punters to "join the communists!" (a bit of a turnaround for anyone acquainted with their history). You go along to a SWP or SP meeting and it's not long before a bit of Lenin and Trotsky is fed into the conversation. As obsolete as this brand of revolutionary socialism is, they have a total world view that is easy to grasp and offers a coherent explanation about our contemporary crises, and is explicitly rooted in a reading of working class politics. They are also already active in trade unions and through their caucuses and groupings offer other militants a lead on the workplace issues of the day. And because they're disciplined organisations, regardless of what you think of self-described Leninist groups they get stuff done and are able, in certain circumstances, to punch above their weight. Neither Transform nor any of its feeder organisations have that level of coherence, efficacy or, you might say, motivation.

And there is the competition over the left-of-Labour space. Undoubtedly, that is opening again as Keir Starmer beats a hasty retreat but poised and ready to pounce are the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. With greater resources and name recognition at their disposal and, in the case of the latter, a commitment to a politics not a million miles from Transform's 10 pledges, any kind of headway will have to be made against these strong cross winds. And for an entirely new party without a big name attached this becomes even more difficult.

Lastly, there is the track record. In a decade of existence Left Unity has achieved nothing apart from a memorable Facebook thread. Breakthrough's defectors have almost entirely retired from politics rather than fight for their seats under their new party name, and its electoral interventions have proven extremely modest - even if their results on average are a touch better than TUSC's. Meanwhile, NIP vanished as quickly as the memory of last week's retweets. How Transform is an advance on the internet pop-up party phenomenon is not obvious. It looks to me just like a rebrand of already quite meagre forces, and one facing a daunting task to get noticed outside of a few thousand extremely-online social media users.

Tuesday 25 July 2023

The Problem with Saying Nothing

There are three elections that loom large in the imaginary of the Labour right. The first is our most recent. There are plenty of reasons why Labour did badly, not least the open rebellion their wing of the party carried on for four years. The second election was the 2019 Australian federal election where Labor entered the fray with a costed but ambitious manifesto, and were sent packing by the Liberal-National Coalition. The third comes from 2022, and that's Labor's win last year. The Coalition was hammered by Labor and the so-called Teales.

What lessons might be taken from these contests? For 2019, the Labour right are happy to acknowledge the Corbyn factor, and related to this is the manifesto. Despite its being fully costed (despite what the front bench now say), they see it as too expensive and too expansive. It didn't pass the sniff test of believability. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson's Tories entered the fray with a minimalist manifesto subordinated entirely to getting Brexit done. And they won. In Australia, Labor's ambitious policy agenda was met with a Coalition document that said very little. That ensured the entire election was spent wrangling and nitpicking over Labor policy, and they lost. Fast forward to its sequel Labor's policy menu was more meagre, and the Coalition and their media allies had little to hang their criticisms on. Instead, they went to the country with a culture war prospectus and were decisively rejected. Though enthusiasm for Labor wasn't exactly brimming over. It won fewer votes than the Coalition did, but a win is a win is a win.

Looking at what Labour is doing right now looks like a cut and paste from down under. And this is something of a problem, a point which New Labour doyen Philip Collins also acknowledges. It's not that the party hasn't got policies, it's that "all of it is dull." More than that, too much of what the party is offering won't do it any good in the long run. But what worries Collins particularly is a retreat from its flagship motifs. He rightly says "Opposition parties are always defined by their most famous policies which are taken to stand as a metaphorical representation of the whole. The precise problem for Labour is that it is in retreat from its own most well-known policies." The green agenda, for instance, has been subject to scaling back since Rachel Reeves gave her big speech on the economy. This was underlined by narrowly losing out to the Tories in Uxbridge, which (as forecast) become Keir Starmer's excuse to double down on the politics of offering nothing.

Despite the thrust of his argument, Collins concludes that saying less is more. Where Labour avows a commitment to Trappist politics it wins. Where it stands for something, it loses. There is a logic to that I suppose, but the politics it puts forward does little to cohere the vote. The big lead Labour enjoys is thanks to the mess the Tories have left the country in. By saying nothing, Labour becomes the reflex anti-Tory option. The question is had Starmer not dumped his 10 leadership pledges and the party was indeed pushing a Corbyn-lite agenda whether it would be worse off, electorally speaking. And the answer is unlikely. Doing nothing avoids right wing media attacks, whereas Starmer might have received a drip, drip of beer gate-style stories and other nonsense. But given the state the place is in, would restoring child benefit to families with more than two children, offering to pay NHS workers more, and pushing harder on the green agenda prove electoral bromides? I doubt it.

Starmer's retreat from his promises is more than simple cowardice. It's true, he doesn't know how to debate politically. Making a case and persuading people of its merits is a peculiar absence when lawyering was his stock-in-trade. But it's a trait he shares with his shadcab bedfellows and the Labour right generally. Why struggle politically when you can simply avoid it, or smear opponents, or slap proscriptions on them? But Starmer's real deficit is that he's simply uninterested in a transformative politics. His idea of making things better, as we've seen time and again, is fixing the British state and restoring its popular authority. If living standards improve, public sector wages get better, trade unions are recognised, and the attacks on social security cease, it's a by-product of his project, not its objective.

Electorally, refusing to say much is not going to harm Labour's chances ahead of the next election. But by not positing anything substantial, any vote it assembles will be soft and motivated by 'againstism' as opposed to being cohered as a positive choice. And that's a problem because when the difficulties of government start mounting, there's not going to be a Tony Blair-style honeymoon to fall back on. Any benefit of the doubt will get used up in short order and Starmer will find his victory is founded on nothing but sand.

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Friday 21 July 2023

Beyond the July By-Elections

Rishi Sunak was spared the ignominy of losing three parliamentary by-elections on one day, but he still has the humiliation of putting a brave face of two utterly devastating defeats. Somerton and Frome and Selby and Ainsty are the sorts of places you should be able to weigh the Tory vote and where opposition parties are but a rumour. But in the West Country the Liberal Democrats set aside received wisdom and brushed away a 19,000 majority and were returned with a cushion of 11,000. Labour have had less success in formerly safe Tory seats, but last night the 20,000 margin for the Conservatives was exchanged for a 4,000 strong majority for Keir Mather, now this parliament's youngest MP.

Considering the state of the Tories, Sunak was bound to grasp at the one glimmer of salvation during a night of utter devastation. He said the next general election was not a "done deal" and that his party confounded expectations by retaining Uxbridge and South Ruislip. As all week the press have been talking about uncertainty over the outcome, that's not strictly speaking true. Choosing to ignore the wounding blows elsewhere, Sunak said this was a clear instruction to get on with his five pledges and deliver on the people's priorities. Yadda yadda. The new nobody now occupying Boris Johnson's old seat, Steve Tuckwell, was more accurate in his assessment. I.e. It was the extension of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to all of Greater London that turned out the Tory support. Leaving aside the regressive characteristics of ULEZ, extrapolating from this quite localised issue there will be a Tory school of thought that there are votes to be gained from pro-car (pro-fossil fuels) and anti-green posturing. Indeed, we know there is one.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the narrow by-election defeat for Labour suits Keir Starmer more than any kind of win. Because it allows him, like Sunak, to stick with the current strategy. Starmer has justified his turn to fiscal hawkishness in terms of what is "necessary" for Labour to enter Number 10. The "tough choices" cliche is about warding off Tory press attacks, and is heavily premised on appealing to (and therefore reinforcing) the negative class consciousness of a section of the electorate. Which includes a not inconsiderable amount of Labour's support. Uxbridge will be deployed as the clincher in this argument, that Labour cannot take anything for granted and so we have to continue being indifferent to hungry children and not make any pledges that could be construed as hopeful, let alone transformative. Had Labour waltzed to a handsome win, Starmer's choice to offer little would have looked more that than the necessary evil he wants to portray it as.

However, all three by-elections demonstrated something I've long been warning about. Forget the revolutionary deflation arguments getting bandied about that reads undue significance into the customarily low turn outs for parliamentary by-elections, and the evaporation of votes in conditions where tactical voting has obviously taken place (Labour's numbers in Somerton, the Lib Dems in Uxbridge and Selby). The interesting factor here is the presence of the Greens. If memory serves, the 10.2% in Somerton is the most the Greens have ever received in a by-election. And saving its deposit in Selby will bring the Greens some cheer, even if it didn't trouble the Labour victory. But, arguably, the 2.9% (893 votes) they got in Uxbridge did. Also, the Green vote in all three by-elections refused to be squeezed. As I pointed out in The Problems of Starmerism paper, pushing policies inimical to the interests of Labour's voter coalition is not without cost. Then (it was written in December 2020) it argued that this would either see Labour's Corbyn-era vote stay at home or give other parties a punt. And this matters because the core vote are not just piled up in big city supermajorities for Labour but are (unevenly) distributed across the country, and could make the difference in some seats. In Uxbridge's case there is a plausible argument to be made that Starmer's child benefit position (and the cowardly backsliding on ULEZ by Labour's candidate) saw enough voters peel away to the Greens to deny him victory. In the grand scheme that doesn't matter for now as the loss suits the prevailing Labour strategy, but carrying on like this when in office will cost the party dear.

Overall it's obvious Labour are on track to win the next election and Sunak's name will forever be paired with a famous defeat. But what is likely to happen in politics beyond that election can already be gleaned.

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Thursday 20 July 2023

The Grant Shapps Crap Attack

Political attacks come in all kinds of guises. We're most habituated to the scurrilous ones, but occasionally one comes along that is completely inept and you're left scratching your head. Our old chum Grant Shapps supplied us one of these today with an open letter to Keir Starmer. In it, Shapps requests that the Labour Party shell out for "damage" done by Just Stop Oil activists to the Department of Energy. Making leaps of logic only a Tory minister overdosing on the desperate pills could make, Shapps says Labour are responsible because it's the "political wing of Just Stop Oil".

I've read Shapps's argument so you don't have to, and it basically amounts to Labour abstaining on the long-mooted crackdown on protest shows the party's in bed with Just Stop Oil. It accepts money from Dale Vince, who has also financially supported them. Are (apparently) adopting the protest group's policies, and there is a suggestion of secret phone calls. As if Morgan McSweeney is issuing orders and telling activists where to target on Starmer's behalf. Pathetic stuff even by Tory standards, and one that leaves them open to all kinds of ripostes. Does Shapps really want to go down the road of being called out over Russian money ending up in Tory coffers? Or wanting his wretched party to be seen as being on the hook for all the damage the fossil fuels industry has done (which, more than any other party, they are responsible for).

And who was this supposed to land with? What kind of punter is going to be flicking through Shapps's Twitter feed and finding his drivel convincing? Even the idiots who regurgitate Tory tat in the Daily Express might have their credulity stretched. If Shapps is thinking himself clever, it might pass itself off as an attention seeking exercise. Except he's too small beer these days to command much notice even among the right wing press. Though that is not obvious to the Shapps ego apparatus. Even so, this does make some sort of sense in the context of a strategy he appears to be taking a lead on. With Labour's loss of a council by-election last week over the expansion of London's Ultra Low Emission Zone, the Tories are hoping to hang on to Uxbridge on the strength of anti-ULEZ feeling. Add together the two kinds of posturing, the Tories are groping toward a pro-motorist position, which they hope they can exploit to save some suburban seats. Though if they hope to make some inroads, they're going to have to be savvier than Shapps's unadulterated crap attack.

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Tuesday 18 July 2023

Strong on the Weak

Acquiring a nickname like 'Sir Kid Starver' is very smart politics. Joking with Tony Blair about how people accept "tough choices" but not "that one" when it comes to the child benefit cap is super clever too. You don't need to take my word for it. Polly Toynbee has decreed it so. But it's even better than that. On Laura Kuenssberg's Sunday programme, he committed Labour to keeping a policy he'd previously called "inhumane". And since all the shadow cabinet have parroted similar lines about not doing what they want to do, and how unfunded commitments are bad. If only the Labour leadership were in a position to change "unfunded" to "funded", eh?

There is a perversity at the heart of Labourism. Slavish and forelock tugging, in its centrist and right wing manifestations it's almost embarrassed by its existence. As much as Starmer, for instance, fetishises "working people", Labourism as a politics of work is buried beneath denial. In the Starmerist imagination, workers are acknowledged as having some trade union rights but that's as far as it goes. The political interests arising from wage labourers doing wage labour are completely denied. They go to work, and then dissolve into passive, privatised consumers of market and public service-provided goods outside of it. Rendered as such, there are no real interests left to articulate apart from fairly vague gestures at tackling the cost of living, or making sure state-provided services are "responsive".

If this is how right wing Labour sees its constituency this gives them a politics without a working moral compass, because the magnetism of Labourism's class basis is negated by its erasure. Hence the Labour leadership has the conscience-free latitude to lean to the right almost as far as they want. And this 'as they want' is important, because there is a choice. Starmer has decided that he's okay with saying children in poverty is fine because he has chosen to cosy up to the powerful. While he lectures others about comfort zones, his strategy of not rocking the boat, not contesting the terms of even establishment politics, and refusing to commit Labour to anything beyond empty promises of "reform" are what he feels familiar and at home with. Punching down at poor people is easy. Expecting his kind of people to cough up for the crises they've benefited handsomely from, that's the real tough choice for Starmer. Which is why he avoids making them.

The wiseacres who keep the faith will say, and are saying, that Labour have to get into office and if this is the only way it can be done then there we are. But get in government to do what, exactly? The party wasn't formed simply so Labour MPs could swan around as ministers of the crown. When Starmer talks about reform, when Starmer avoids discussing public sector pay, when Starmer is committing to keeping children poor, are we supposed to take it on trust that this is gruel today for jam tomorrow, like his acolytes suggest? No. Starmer will govern as he has performed as opposition leader. Strong on the weak, weak on the strong.

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Sunday 16 July 2023

On Scrapping Inheritance Tax

With another week's worth of polls putting the Tories 20-points behind, and three tough by-elections this Thursday things are getting a touch desperate in Number 10. The five pledges Rishi Sunak asked the public to judge him on seem miles away from fulfilment, and the drip-drip of Tory MPs dropping down the plug hole of retirement is not abating. Ben Wallace being the latest to announce his intention to leave, though whether this is to spend more time on the boards of weapons manufacturers remain to be seen. In straightened circumstances, what can the Tories do to change the public's minds about them?

Flying a kite in mid-July's stormy weather is always risky, but Sunak has been doing just that with his thinking aloud about abolishing inheritance tax and sticking it in the next manifesto. The puff piece for the Times finds a source gushing about how it's a "gamechanger", and would cost £7bn in lost revenues. And the public services that will be cut to provide this bung to the propertied? A small price to pay.

On the face of it, abolishing inheritance tax won't shift many votes because it doesn't affect that many people. As tax expert Dan Neidle points out, only estates worth over £325k fall into the bracket. Even in the wealthiest constituencies, the number of estates paying up are mostly in the double as opposed to triple figures. And the wealthiest usually find ways to avoid inheritance tax too, some of which is aided by HMRC. For instance, if a house is gifted to children or grandchildren the threshold rises to £500k. With so few affected, why do "sources close to" think this is a killer that will leave Labour reeling?

The Tories believe everyone likes tax cuts because everyone likes to keep their money. There is an assumption that most voters see themselves as taxpayers first and foremost because, in the recent past, the political fallout of the Tories' austerity programme was partly mitigated by appeals to value-for-money/hard-working taxpayer arguments. If that worked, why wouldn't a more direct message about reducing tax bills? Second, there's the who the policy is aimed at. Sure, it tells the well heeled flirting with Keir Starmer-voting thoughts that the Tories will always look out for them, but in reality those who aren't affected by it anyway are more likely to respond positively to it. According to some polling, 2019 red wall Tory voters think inheritance tax is "too high". In these seats as per elsewhere, the retired and the elderly turned out disproportionately for Boris Johnson. The reasons for doing so have been gone over here plenty of times, but for some part of it is wanting to protect the modest amount of wealth accumulated over their lifetimes so they have something to pass down to their offspring. The absurdity of pensioners voting to give their kids and grand kids a hard time now so they get their house and savings later is one of the many contradictions that bedevil British politics. Nevertheless this group, even if they're well below the threshold are sensitive to inheritance tax vibes. The Tories know this, and so politically speaking the Tories committing to abolishing the tax isn't "ideological". It makes perfect sense from their reading of the situation, as per many other apparently hard-to-fathom moves.

Sunak knows Labour will never match this promise, no matter how many times Starmer refuses to commit to spending money on public services. Therefore the door is open for a not-entirely-honest series of attacks on Labour about secret plans to raise taxes, and how closing loopholes are Trojan horses for more stealth taxes. Expect posters exclaiming tax bombshells and tax double whammys. For Tory strategists if this in conjunction with the war on woke attacks land well among the 2019 pensioner vote, then their party might be more competitive than the polls suggest.

Friday 14 July 2023

Portishead - Glory Box

There was some Portishead loveliness on tonight's Top of the Pops reruns. We just won't talk about Boyzone's ghastly vocal performance on the same show.

Thursday 13 July 2023

The Politics of Standards in Public Life

Standards in public life? Sounds like a good idea, Not sure the Labour leadership are the ones to to give that lecture, but that didn't stop Angela Rayner holding forth on the subject at the Institute for Government today. What she had to say wasn't new. It was a reheat of proposals first cooked a couple of years ago. But reminding the media and the public of them at a moment of acute Tory sleaze and rule breaking wouldn't do Labour any harm.

In her speech, Rayner said ministers would be banned from lobbying jobs related to their briefs for five years. No more aspirant Patricia Hewitts doing the health minister's job and then catching a private medicine consultancy after retiring from the big house. There's also a change in who gets to makes the decision about launching a standards investigation, It's taken out of the Prime Minister's hands and will be in the gift of that old favourite - an independent panel. This ethics and standards commission could be given powers to determine the punishment of those who fall foul of its remit, though Number 10 will be given a final say.

This ticks a couple of boxes. For the wonks and the self-styled modernisers it wraps up several ad hoc committees and appointments, making for a more efficient process not (immediately) beholden to the politics of the day. It might create a bit of a headache for Keir Starmer down the line. But it's also smart politics, and not just because Tory bad behaviour is right now winning votes for Labour. Because of the scale of Tory corruption, any current ministers who survive the coming deluge will have to spend some time concentrating on and laundering their records and reputations instead of opposing a Starmer-led government. And it would serve quite a few political purposes four or five years hence to remind the punters about how corrupt and lawless the Tories have been.

But constitutional fixes can't mend politics. That comes from the ebbs and flows of the struggle itself. The problem Starmer has is despite claiming the mantle of Mr Rules and Grown Up in the Room, his performance as Labour leader has been brazenly shameless in its dishonesty. At Unite's conference today he said he won't make any apologies for doing what is necessary to win. In that context he was obviously referring to the dumping of high profile policies. But as Labour Party watchers know, this has gone hand in hand with the exclusion of undesirables from candidate lists and the membership without the pretence of natural justice or recourse to the rule book. Lies are frequently told by leading Labour figures about his predecessor, and Starmer himself can get very evasive about his recent record. That the media has largely let this slide doesn't mean it hasn't happened. Indeed, there is a burgeoning cottage industry of left wingers cataloguing all of those misdeeds.

And here is the trouble. Are we supposed to believe this behaviour will cease when Starmer enters Number 10? That the trumpeting of a new quango for overseeing ministerial conduct means an end to making misleading statements in the Commons, duplicity, and cashing cheques from moneyed interests? I doubt it very much, and what that means is when the commission is set up whatever remit it has will be tightly circumscribed by the every day dishonesty of doing political business.

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Tuesday 11 July 2023

The BBC: A Qualified Defence

It hasn't been long since The Sun last overreached itself. On that occasion, they allowed Jeremy Clarkson to go into print with a typically disgusting attack on Meghan Markle. This time, it's a salacious story on a so far unnamed BBC presenter that is, at best, shoddy work, and at worst deliberately misleading.

Let's recap what we know. On Saturday The Sun splashed its exclusive claiming a household name had paid over thousands of pounds to a young person for explicit photos. It also claimed they were under 18 at the time, had a crack habit apparently brought about by their interaction with our unknown celebrity, and was still in receipt of money from them. The paper further reported that the family had complained to the BBC but no action had been taken. Indeed, this celebrity was seen hobnobbing with BBC bosses recently, suggesting that yet again the corporation's management were looking the other way while questions hung over one of their biggest names. But then in an about-turn yesterday, a lawyer acting for the "victim" said this was all a tissue of lies ("rubbish" as the statement put it) and was more a case of their family disapproving of their lifestyle. I.e. They were on OnlyFans and all the presenter had done was pay them for explicit content.

Earlier today a second story came out, claiming that our presenter had contacted a guy in his early 20s, asked to meet up, didn't, and then sent him a slew of abusive messages when he threatened to go to the press. The latter has been confirmed by the BBC as coming from the celebrity's phone, but for the speculators following this on social media there is no way of knowing if these are actionable from a police point of view until The Met says something. There is now the allegation he tried meeting a third person in contravention of the lockdown rules in force at the time.

For The Sun, jumping on and spinning the story to suggest there was something inappropriate and underage going on was designed to undermine the BBC's legitimacy. It's likely to be a very costly gambit for which they'll end up grovelling again. Nevertheless, The Sun's anti-BBC vendetta isn't something worthwhile cheering on, despite the broadcaster having massive problems from our point of view. There's the obvious commercial argument. The BBC still has massive resources and can potentially out-compete most media organisations. It's a non-commercial rival to Murdoch's operations, and he has an economic interest in seeing the BBC brought low and/or transformed into a commercially-funded operation. And as we know, regardless of how distorted the institution or public good, for hyper class conscious right wingers anything that isn't about straightforward commodity production or challenges their power a smidgen is an enemy.

And there is the politics. The claims of BBC neutrality and impartiality are easily disproved, but despite that the ideology it secretes combines certain values with its pro-establishment positioning. The Sun and Murdoch want to see the BBC disestablished because, for millions of people, it embodies integrity and fairness in news. It has a certain standing against which News Corp's output is shown to be outright partial and bent to the sectional agendas of the right, and that makes their propaganda less effective than it might be. Think of it as the BBC providing a yardstick. With its disappearance from the news gathering and reporting scene, standards would inevitably tumble, or become appendages to the politics of commercial broadcasters. This is a recipe for segmenting the audience along political lines as per the United States, making divide and conquer easier, and the development of a common ground more difficult. Only oligarchical interests and grifters are served by this scenario. Presently, the BBC is an obstacle to this happening to broadcast news because it is an institution that is valued by millions across political divides.

This is reflected in the right wing and left wing critiques of the BBC. The left often criticises its low key pro-establishment editorialising and its using right wing frames to construct its reporting because it falls short of the values its committed to. The right criticises the BBC when it does approximate impartiality and even-handedness, such as when it allows left wingers onto its politics shows or critically reports on government policy and activity. Accuracy and evidence counts more for the left simply because right wing politics is structurally dishonest. Its purpose is to present the minority interest as the universal interest, and that means lying and obfuscating as a matter of routine. Or being economical with the truth when the indiscretions of a BBC presenter are used a lever for pushing a highly sectional political and commercial agenda.