Thursday 31 August 2023

Keir Starmer's Divided Base

This week we learn 70 economists have sent Keir Starmer a letter decrying Labour's future spending plans. This comes after Rachel Reeves telling The Telegraph last weekend that there won't be any wealth taxes and mansion taxes, nor movements on top rates of income tax and capital gains. When pressed on how she expects to fund public services and all the other things Labour wants to do, her stock answer is economic growth. But as Josh Ryan-Collins rightly argues, these hopes are forlorn if Labour is to meet Starmer's mission of the strongest sustained growth in the G7. This is because the country's tax structure incentivises asset hoarding and investments that don't contribute to rising employment and "good" growth. What's more, not only is this plan out-of-step with what's happening in the United States, which Reeves affects to admire, but is miles away from what the economics establishment are saying. He notes, "The OECD, IMF, Institute for Fiscal Studies and Financial Times have all come out in favour of higher taxes on property and wealth in recent times as a means to support public investment and growth and reduce inequality."

Starmer will undoubtedly ignore this missive. After all, his shadow chancellor is also an expert and her background in Bank of England/Treasury orthodoxy dovetails with the priorities of the press and the oligarchs the Labour leadership have spent all summer courting. But this is storing up very big problems for Labour on the other side of the election.

As argued here many times before, Starmer's acceptance of Tory framing across all the important policy areas as defined by the right wing press neutralises hysterical attacks from them now, but isn't giving people anything to vote for. At this rate Labour are on course to win the next general election simply because they're not the Tories, not thanks to any positive policy agenda. And when in office he proceeds to govern the country along these same lines, albeit with a bit of tinkering here and there, viable electoral alternatives are primed and ready to go. As will be the inevitable, right wing petty bourgeois street movements in the absence of a credible Tory opposition.

There is another problem. Starmerism's immediate base is within the state machinery, and outside of that it is the professional managerial class. Again, there is nothing particularly startling or innovative about this. From its beginning, the Labour Party was an alliance between the organised working class and the middle class. For the last 120 years, the ancestors of Starmer's base have voted Labour, joined Labour, campaigned for Labour, and have intellectually and politically dominated Labour. During the Corbyn years, while many of what Dan Evans calls the downwardly mobile professional managerial class (i.e. graduates without graduate jobs) also attached themselves to Labour, not all of this strata flounced out for adventures with Change UK and the second referendum campaign. Corbynism appealed not just because its programme meant better pay and properly funded public services, it held out the promise of properly utilising their talents and skills to rebuild a Britain worth living in.

And here's where Starmer's difficulties lie. His biggest supporters are to be found in the professional managerial class, but that enthusiasm is by no means universal. Indeed, Labour appear more concerned with antagonising those in the public sector on behalf of imaginary voters. The shadow health secretary enjoys attacking the medical professions while Starmer himself talks vaguely about reform with no spending commitments. Not what senior NHS administrators want to hear either. In higher education with its academics, managers, and the next generation of professionals, we've seen the scrapping of pledges made. For local government, schools and FE, the civil service, even the police, there are no commitments to fix the messes the Tories have created. No movement on pay, and no vision of national renewal in which the professional managerial class could positively locate themselves. All Starmer wants to be seen offering is more of the tiresome, soul-sapping same. And that's before we mention how many of them have taken strike action over the last year and aren't about to abandon the picket lines just because Labour are in office.

What this means is, again, most of this strata will vote Labour when the election comes round. But it will be without enthusiasm in the absence of offering them something more than top down restructuring that ties them up with more bureaucracy while funnelling more state money into corporate coffers. As I said, Starmer will likely ignore the concerns of the economists, but what they're articulating is a deep unease across his natural base. If he continues alienating those who should be in his pocket, any government he leads will hit the buffers very quickly.

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Wednesday 30 August 2023

ULEZ and its Discontents

Tuesday saw the rolling out of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to all the boroughs of Greater London. Inherited from Boris Johnson and, once upon a time, encouraged by Grant Shapps before deciding being against ULEZ was good for Tory prospects, it's fair to say Sadiq Khan has fully embraced the policy. He toured the breakfast show studios talking up the improvements to London's air quality, and how it was saving lives. The scheme, which came into force at midnight, is operating with no grace period. Those entering the ULEZ without emissions compliant vehicles and a £12.50 daily pass can look forward to immediate fines of £180. Estimating that around 90% of cars in the outer boroughs already sit below the threshold, a scrappage scheme is available in which grants of up to £2,000 can be claimed towards a new car.

Leaving aside the character of the policy and its implementation, there was one interesting aspect to BBC regional news coverage of the roll out. It continually emphasised the "strong opposition" to it. One on the spot report highlighted anti-ULEZ graffiti, while another mentioned how a camera had been vandalised with white paint. Naturally, right wing media have chosen to talk this up. A couple of hundred (if that) marching on Downing Street with a No 2 ULEZ coffin and claiming toxic air "is a lie" was prominently featured on the Telegraph's website. It says "some parts of London [are] seeing every one of their Ulez cameras vandalised on the day of the expansion". The Sun likewise reports that "dozens of cameras" were vandalised, and claims some drivers had taped up their number plates to evade detection. Farage is banging on about this "tax on working people", and LBC went on the Underground and - to no one's surprise - found air down there was poor quality. Then we had the road blockages by anti-ULEZ protestors last week which, funnily enough, did not merit a scintilla of condemnation from the outlets who treat every Just Stop Oil action as if the Paris Commune was marching on Versailles. And no doubt hoping some of that anti-ULEZ love will improve his chances at the next election, The Mail reports how Iain Duncan Smith is backing efforts to destroy Transport for London's shiny new cameras. You read that correctly. The party of law and order is encouraging criminal damage.

Some of the arguments opposition to ULEZ field miss the mark. It's a nefarious scheme for Khan to raise more money for woke projects, which falls apart considering how thousands have already applied for the scrappage scheme and the mayor's office are encouraging people to do this to avoid the tickets and the fines. Or it's open season on the motorist to force the hellscape of 15 minute cities onto us and take away the freedom to drive wherever you please. Very quickly, the arguments abandon the sensible grounds of affordability and its being a regressive tax and jump headlong into the completely conspiratorial. This is because ULEZ, like pretty much all policies with universal scope strikes terror into the hearts of a particular constituency: the petit bourgeoisie.

In Dan Evans's recent discussion about his book on the same, he talks about how the petit bourgeoisie are the most excitable and dangerous of classes. As sole traders, or owners of small or medium sized businesses their status feels as if it rests entirely on their shoulders. If they take a day off sick, that's a day without income. Holiday pay does not exist. And they are at the mercies of forces much larger than them. The movement of a large retailer into their district can wipe them out. New government regulations means added costs, which can wipe them out. Employees getting together into a union and pressing for higher wages or taking industrial action can wipe them out. Disruption of the every day, from the weather to public services not working properly to third party strikes can wipe them out. Being one's own boss is life affirming and validates one's individuality, even though the reality of the situation more often than not finds this pluckiest of underdogs treading water and hoping a wave doesn't come along that drowns them.

A couple of important political consequences flow from occupying this location. Self-reliance is dependent on making the right choices, which means as far as they are concerned there is no higher authority than themselves. Not so much I think therefore I am, more I think therefore it must be true. This explains the over-preponderance of the petit bourgeois in anti-vax/Covid denial movements and other collective outbursts of the seemingly irrational. The second is that the angst undergirding their position predisposes them to a politics of certainty, which explains a tendency to cultural nostalgia and disproportionate enthusiasm for right wing authoritarian politics. One cannot understand why this class went for Leave over Remain in the EU referendum without understanding this point, and how they have consistently been more attracted to the Tories than Labour. Even when the latter have differed not at all on authoritarian statism.

Looking at mobilisations of the petit bourgeoisie in the 21st century, there is a certain commonality to them. Whether it was the petrol protests in 2000 or the Countryside Alliance demonstrations a year later, the Fathers 4 Justice stunts, and latterly the cocktail of Covid conspiracism, 15 minute cities, and now ULEZ what they all have in common is the perception the state, or rather a busybody and overly managerial section of the state is getting in the way, professing to know better than them, and is stopping them from doing as they please. ULEZ, as the flagship policy of a technocratic and robot-sounding Labour mayoralty was always bound to antagonise a layer of them. Particularly those whose opposition to Sadiq Khan has more than a racist tinge, and have happily drunk from the toxic brew of Islamophobia that is swilling around the London Tory party. With encouragement from leading Tories, and indeed anti-ULEZ (predictably) now forming a key plank of government strategy since retaining Johnson's old seat, if anything opposition to it will grow with more daft demonstrations and attacks on TfL cameras. It is seen and felt as an irksome burden, and is treated as such.

There's a warning here for Labour. Keir Starmer in office will be a red rag to the petit bourgeois bull. The arrogant we-know-best vibes given off by the shadow front bench, the deeply inauthentic media appearances, a politics of authoritarian modernisation that aims at perfecting the state, and the prospect of more regulation as local authorities are empowered offer plenty of real and imagined grievances for petit bourgeois oppositionism to take up. Which is all the more likely given how the Tories will be down for the count and unlikely to make a comeback any time soon. Considering how the Labour right would rather turn to administrative means and dirty tricks than rely on political argument, petit bourgeois provocations are likely to elicit even more authoritarian responses. And who knows where they might go in reply?

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Tuesday 29 August 2023

The Party's Over: Out Now!

Today copies of The Party's Over: The Rise and Fall of the Conservatives from Thatcher to Sunak officially hit the shelves. It is the partially rewritten and updated second edition of Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain, which came out in hard back a couple of years ago. The Party's Over adds about 20,000 extra words, covering the calamity of the entirety of Boris Johnson's premiership with and an expanded final chapter that takes in the Liz Truss interlude and the first steps of Rishi Sunak's government.

The revamped edition is a bit of a told you so. The original was mostly written during the first Covid lockdown when Johnson was at the height of his powers and commentators right, left, and centre were saying the Tories could look forward to a decade in office. When Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader few thought he'd be a contender after one parliamentary term. Remembering this is worthwhile as those same people now say Johnson was steering the Tories onto the rocks, and that a downturn in the government's fortunes was inevitable after such a long period in office.

That nevertheless poses an important question. Are the problems the Tories facing an issue simply of exhaustion, of the public getting fed up with them as they did in 1997 and 1964-66? Without peering beneath the surface, that appears to be the case. The antics of Johnson, Truss, and the do-nothing politics of Sunak are enough to give the most loyal Conservative voter pause. But, as the book argues, the Tories have a far more serious problem: a crisis of political reproduction. The mass base the Tories have built is utterly dependent on older people generally and retirees in particular, and is a coalition premised on high property values, home ownership, rising pensions, and (to an extent) shielding the elderly while attacking the living standards of working age people and gutting the state of its capacity to do anything. Voting Conservative is not a consequence of getting old, but of the tendency of acquiring property throughout one's life - however meagre it might be. If a Tory government is a block on this process of acquisition, it's not going to generate future Conservative voters. And that makes the job of winning elections progressively more difficult.

Therefore, while The Party's Over does survey the history of the Tories from the rise of Thatcher to today, it's more than a simple recapitulation of events. It pays particular attention to questions of political strategy, and how Thatcher's war on the labour movement was generalised into attacks on the (public sector-aligned) professional managerial class via her contempt for "expertise". This resulted not only in what we call neoliberalism, but the ongoing effort to stamp out collectivist politics and atomise people. The book therefore owes more to Marx, Foucault, and Wendy Brown than the usual touchstones of political science.

To mark publication day, I was interviewed by LabourHub with the headline "A red wall strategy is a non-starter for Sunak". Find out why by clicking through. And if you want a copy delivered straight to you day while supporting independent book shops, this is the best place to get it.

Over the coming months, I'll be doing trades council meetings, podcasts, bits of radio and so on to promote the book and its ideas. If you'd like me to come and speak to your group do drop me a line at the usuals.

Monday 28 August 2023

The Entitled End of Nadine Dorries

The big top is taken down. The face paints are in their cases, the costumes stored in the wardrobes, and the clown car is parked in its berth. Yes friends, Nadine Dorries has finally announced her resignation from the Commons three months after saying she was stepping down with immediate effect. She won't be missed. In her person, Dorries condensed all that was small-minded, entitled, and bitter about the Conservative Party base. Her efforts at trying to privatise Channel 4 showcased her lazy ignorance and unsuitability for high office, just as her 12 month tantrum of not attending the Commons showed an evident incapacity to acquit the basics. No wonder she got on so well with Boris Johnson. Dorries's whingeing about not getting a peerage because she's "working class" is also dishonest rubbish. She has not had a working class occupation since the early 1980s, having spent the last 40 years swanning around as a business owner, a director, a spinner, a "celebrity", an author of 16 books, and a part-time parliamentarian. Rejecting her pleas for ermine robes is probably the only decent thing Rishi Sunak has done as Prime Minister.

Ah yes, Sunak. Readers might recall that Dorries is not a fan of inherited privilege, having previously dubbed the Dave and Osborne double act as "two arrogant posh boys" who had no idea of what life was like beyond Westminster. As a social climber, how it must have irked Dorries for the party's leadership to simply fall into Sunak's lap (though, given who her political hero is, her anger at unearned reward is somewhat selective). Indeed, her resignation letter - bought and paid for by the Daily Mail - is a long, boring, self-aggrandising diatribe that nevertheless makes some telling criticisms of his premiership. She talks about his heading a "zombie government" that hasn't achieved anything. Changes to social care, Johnson's much-boostered levelling up promises, commitments to net zero, and mental health reform - all abandoned. Sunak also raised corporation tax, has made zero progress on Northern Ireland despite giving the EU everything it wanted, and migration refuses to go down. He's failing as a Conservative as well as a Prime Minister.

Dorries does make an unanswerable point. For all their hideous, anti-working class politics, her faction did and do offer a coherent strategy for the Tories. Not one that would win an election or arrest the Tories' long-term decline, but recognises that to stand a chance they have to offer something. "Levelling up" was exactly that - a redistribution of the state as a means of driving growth in Britain's depressed regions. However, it says a great deal about how seriously Johnson took it that as weak a chancellor as Sunak - the man he hand-picked for the role, after all - could derail it. The failings of her team doesn't stop lambasting Sunak for his poor stewardship, rightly criticising him for doing absolutely nothing. We're also led to believe that the Prime Minister has been orchestrating attacks on Dorries, which have apparently placed her in danger. Of course.

This much delayed resignation has attracted supporters and critics. As ever, John Redwood popped up to recommend that swerving back to a traditional tax cutting agenda will win over the voters (it won't). Others supportive of briefcase Toryism put the boot into Dorries, calling her "an embarrassment" and "pretty useless". Indeed, for them she typifies the Johnson circus and would much rather forget about it, except when it comes to stealing his anti-immigration and war-on-woke politics. Room can always be found for them. But as judgements on Dorries's performance as an MP and a minister go, they will find no argument in these parts. Unfortunately, it's not likely Dorries is about to disappear down the memory hole. Six more books to come, including her "expose" of Tory dirty tricks against her and Johnson, and shows on GB News plus guest columns in the right wing press. We're seeing the back of her without seeing the back of her.

Ultimately, what the politics of Dorries's resignation shows is how the Tories are strategically blocked. There is no way of avoiding the juggernaut grinding its way toward them. And with Sunak committed to a politics of doing nothing, it's hardly surprising the Conservatives aren't heading anywhere except in the direction of defeat.

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Sunday 27 August 2023

Preparing to Waste an Historic Opportunity

Is the next Labour government going to do nice things? A lot of social media users took the latest Jon Elledge piece as offering a big yes to that question. Which goes to prove even "media savvy" folks just read the headline without clicking through. The argument offered is much more subtle, a case of never judging an article by the tweet. Supposing Keir Starmer wins a decent majority at the next election, Labour can do pretty much what it wants. The impasse that we're at now, where Rishi Sunak can't do anything because of the fracturing among the Tory majority, has meant we've forgot what effective government can do and how it can determine the course of political debate.

Booting up the old memory banks recalls two things. It wasn't that long ago the Coalition government presided over things in this country, and though it was a lash up between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats it operated as an effective government. If you happen to define efficacy in terms of getting its legislative programme through over and above the content of what went on the statute books. They operated as a stable majority government that didn't suffer an especially large number of defeats. And indeed some might recall how that government did set the terms of political debate, with opposition and the media all singing from the same austerity hymn sheet. I think that's still pretty fresh.

The second recollection dredged up from the depths is what was said about Labour governments of the recent past who find themselves in this position. There was a view, an illusion propagated by Labour activists and ordinary Labour-supporting punters that Tony Blair was just saying right wing things so he could get into office. Once he was there he'd reveal his social democratic soul and undo the damage inflicted during the previous 17 years. Despite becoming master of all that he surveyed, what we got was around-the-edges tinkering. And having learned nothing, we saw it again as Gordon Brown limbered up to the premiership. "He was held back by Blair" went the fantasy. When he's in Number 10 we'll see some proper Labour policies. To be fair to Brown, he did nothing to invite these projections - especially when New Labour was as much his creation as Blair's and Peter Mandelson's. But he did get to nationalise some things.

Since winning the Labour leadership, Keir Starmer has repeatedly and in full public view shredded the pledges he stood on. Suitability for political office is best demonstrated by refusing to stand for anything, don't you know. And as if to underline the point, this weekend in the Sunday Telegraph Rachel Reeves announced there won't be any new taxes on the rich. That means no increase on the top rate of income tax, no capital gains tax, no mansion tax nor any specific wealth tax. Starmer is leaving nothing to chance. Like his predecessors, he can't be accused of making big promises nor of raising expectations.

Jon does concede that Labour might not use the space afforded them by the defeat of the Tories. And where his argument is useful is reminding his readers that Labour's voters are different to the Conservatives' reactionary base, and therefore these defeated constituencies can be ignored. Which is true, except Starmer's behaviour acts as though they are part of the coalition he wants to build. Whereas Jon looks forward to the bangers-on about Brexit, war on woke, etc. getting short shrift it's far more likely Starmer will carry on cleaving to this foul politics because it's the Daily Mail and friends going on about them. And this surrender to their framing is easy because it wouldn't disrupt his project. What you might call his authoritarian modernisation is chiefly concerned with restoring the authority of the state and its institutions, patching up the country's beleaguered political economy, and rescuing British capitalism from the verge of a legitimation crisis where the Tories have left it. Doing so will shift politics onto a more managerial terrain but leave all the fundamentals intact.

The problem this leaves Starmer with is despite raising no expectations and, indeed, having spent his leadership dashing them, his choice not to do anything to address persistent inequalities or glaring problems will be perceived as exactly that. No matter how many times he and Reeves repeat the "there is no money" line, it's not going to wash. And that's going to cause all kinds of problems that could well strike at the party's base itself.

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Wednesday 23 August 2023

Why India is on the Moon

Congratulations to the Indian Space Research Organisation. In managing a successful soft landing at the Moon's south pole, they have won the distinction of ensuring India is the fourth nation ever to land successfully and the first in this tricky region of Earth's satellite. The Chandrayaan-3 probe and its rover are now poised to return a wealth of scientific data about the pole, which holds significant quantities of water ice and other minerals and chemicals that have been of interest to all the space-faring powers for some time. And for those of us who overdosed on too much science fiction and tech optimism, it's another step toward making humans an interplanetary species.

Let's not get too dewy eyed though. Space exploration, which should be for the benefit of all, most emphatically is not. As many a critique of space programmes have pointed out, it's obscene for resources to be expended on mucking about in the heavens when there are so many pressing problems on the Earth. This is especially so in India's case. According to the World Bank, most recent figures (2017) found between 10.4% and 13.6% of the population were in "extreme poverty" (i.e. subsisting on less than $1.90/day). A decline on the rates saw in 2011, but by no means keeping pace with the explosion in GDP. Undoubtedly, over the coming days a Tory MP will appear to question UK state aid to India, which was around £2.3bn between 2016 and 2021. But the point remains, with such levels of poverty in India, which amounts to well over 100 million people, how can a space programme be justified?

It can't in moral terms, but then realpolitik and capitalism don't owe much to morality. As the former president of India, Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam put it in his autobiography, "Very many individuals with myopic vision questioned the relevance of space activities in a newly independent nation which was finding it difficult to feed its population. But neither Prime Minister Nehru nor Prof. Sarabhai had any ambiguity of purpose. Their vision was very clear: if Indians were to play a meaningful role in the community of nations, they must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to their real-life problems."

Following the withdrawal of Britain and partition in 1947, for decades the Indian ruling class were dedicated to a project of national independence. Loosely modelled on the Soviet Union, albeit with liberal democratic characteristics, India followed the path of many industrialising nations. Import tariffs, national infrastructure projects, and efforts at making the country less dependent on global markets dominated by the United States and the West. Under pressure from competition and border conflicts with Pakistan and China, from the early 1960s the Indian government encouraged space research that complemented its rocketry and nuclear weapons programmes, with its first bomb tested in the mid 1970s and the achievement of a range of guided surface-to-surface ballistic missiles by the late 00s. India's announcement about its rocket capabilities coincided in 2008 with Chandrayaan-1's orbit of the Moon, which confirmed the presence of water at the south pole. The development of the space programme after independence was relatively far sighted. Becoming a player in advanced aerospace technologies carved a niche out of an increasingly important sector, especially with the telecommunications revolutions of the late 1970s onwards. Added to that with its position close to the equator India is a sensible location for space launches for third party powers and telecommunications businesses. Decades of investment has produced a world class launch capability and technology that can compete with China, Russia, Europe, and the US. And behind that is the implied strength of Indian arms.

For a coming superpower, which India surely is, sitting out the new space race is not an option. With the US and China eyeing Moon bases, international competition over milestone achievements is a signifier for Indian capability in the space exploration market. As argued before, like military spending monies for space programmes is wasteful but endemic to a class system that puts class relations before the conventional understanding of economic development. But with so many states in the process of building the infrastructure for regular human spaceflight and the colonisation of the Moon, it makes sense for India and the commercial entities spun out of its space programme to be there to profit from what comes decades down the line. Assuming we don't blow ourselves up/drown in rising seas/etc. and there is no significant break with capitalism, it's reasonable to forecast Moon, Venus, and Mars colonies and stations by the end of the century. India's position and, most importantly, the power and wealth of its ruling class would benefit handsomely from playing this pioneering role.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

What Happened to Eva Braun?

A non-tin-foil-hatty account of the anomalies surrounding Eva Braun's autopsy. Anomalies that have never had a satisfying explanation.

Saturday 19 August 2023

Does Greatness Await the Greens?

In the last decade there have been two Green surges. The first, in early 2015, saw party membership swell by tens of thousands in response to a grassroots social media campaign. With UKIP then hogging all the "minor party" interest as far as headline writers were concerned and Labour in Milquetoast mode, the huge bump in support was a diffuse and inchoate protest against poisonous politics. In 2019, after having been diminished by Corbynism the Greens surged again. In the EU elections the UK was forced to participate in, the Greens increased its MEP count to seven with 1.8m votes, beating the Tories into fourth place with 1.8m votes (12%) - the party's best result since it came third in the same elections in 1989. And now, arguably, the Greens are experiencing a third surge and one that might establish them as a force to be reckoned with.

Traditionally the Greens have been characterised as a petit bourgeois party by the left, even if their programme in the 2020s is more radical and pro-worker than what Keir Starmer will put in the next Labour manifesto. But while there are understandable reasons to reject Labour - and I don't blame anyone on the left who does - what appears to be fuelling Green growth in elections is collapsing support for the Conservatives. Over the last year, it's mostly Tory seats that have tumbled to the Greens. Only a smattering of Labour and Liberal Democrat seats were among the scalps the party wracked up in this year's local elections.

The argument long made on here is about a fundamental shift toward immaterial labour in working class and middle class occupations. That is the central concern for increasing numbers of working age people is the production of social production: the interrelated production of social relationships, education, information, subjectivities, and care in the context of an economy dominated by the buying and selling of services. This has had profound consequences on the practical consciousness of class tending toward socially liberal values. Sociality, the ability to be comfortable with diversity, of interacting, relating, and empathising with people as they are found is an everyday virtue - despite the best efforts of the government at trying to reverse this increasingly powerful consensus. This helps explain the stark age splits revealed in surveys of voting behaviour and values. The younger one is, the more likely their education and career has socialised them into the spontaneously tolerant outlook of immaterial labour. Of course, socialised workers are not an unvariegated mass. Profession and occupation, inherited class position and property ownership, the experiences of gender, race/ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age, location, the privatisation of leisure combine and recombine in multiples of shifting identities. For all that, instead of being all over the place they - the totality of working age people - tend toward an anti-Tory politics. Even in the 2019 general election, the nadir of Corbyn's leadership, Labour were still the most popular party among working age people.

Therefore, as Keir Starmer moves Labour away from social liberalism and, crucially, the interests of the socialised worker the party will face significant difficulties. This, as argued here plenty times, is unlikely to manifest before the general election but once in office there's no reason why the Greens (and the Liberal Democrats) shouldn't benefit from an alienation of Labour's support from the party. There will be plenty of flashpoints, and the Tories have so thoroughly salted the ground that their being the beneficiary of anti-Labour opposition among this group of voters is not very likely. But this is the future. The Greens as a party with a radical programme with a strong pro-worker, pro-trade union spine are doing well now at the Tories' expense in formerly safe Conservative districts. How might this be explained, and does it mean the Greens can look forward to more gains from this quarter?

Looking at council by-elections so far this year, there has been profit from tactical voting. In parliamentary by-elections Labour and the Lib Dems have reaped the rewards, while at local level the Greens are surging as never before. But why are they benefiting now? A lot has to do with the fracturing of the Tory voter coalition. While pensioner power that put the Tories in office and sustained them there, over the last decade the party has been able to win over just enough working age people to win their majorities. These are, disproportionately, small business owners, older workers, homeowners/mortgage holders and layers of professional-managerial people. In previous decades, before the growing reliance on retirees, these were the bedrock of Tory support and while some are still in the Tory van, these last few years they have kissed goodbye to mortgage holders and their support has eroded significantly among the professional-managerial cadres. It's not difficult to work out why. Unlike their public sector counterparts who more or less stuck with Labour from the Blair-Brown years to the present, constant attacks on professional occupations and a traducing of expertise generally, married to Conservatives behaving badly has sullied the party's reputation. Among the managerial caste - mainly in business - the disastrous consequences of Brexit, the lack of regulatory certainty from government, the state's increasing decrepitude, and complete failure to do anything about the country's deep-seated problems is shying them away.

Tailor-made for Keir Starmer's Labour, you might think. And polls looking at the intentions of 2019 Tory voters find about 10% of those who won't be supporting Rishi Sunak this time are going for Labour. Lower numbers are transferring to the Lib Dems ad the Greens, with don't know/won't vote by far the largest group. But the local council elections and by-elections showing occasional eviscerations of the Tories at the Greens' hands, how might a party well to the left of Labour be intersecting with a not-very-left electorate? Tactical voting only goes far, especially where the Greens have not previously been a factor in the places they've won. The more cynical might alight on how local parties campaign. Particularly where NIMBYism takes hold, such as Green opposition to solar farms for example. But neither by themselves can explain the generalised advance we're seeing at local government level.

There seem to be a few other processes going on. The first is the Greens' big selling point: environmentalism. The big scare the Greens gave the main parties in the 1989 European Community elections ensured "the green house effect" and other environmental concerns were forever paid lip service to subsequently. But repeated Tory stupidities over fossil fuels and refusal to take the climate crisis seriously is seeing the party being abandoned in droves in the county shires where the conservationist tendencies of former Tory support is now transferring to the party most serious about the issue. Second, the Greens are 'nice'. By that, I mean they're at a remove from the knockabout of politics. The party hasn't been embroiled in corruption or pushed divisive politics, and are therefore "untainted". When Conservatism is synonymous with amoral politics and immoral behaviour, the Greens are a clean option. And lastly, they're not Labour. Party antipathy is as powerful a push factor as party identification is in pulling the votes in. For former Tory voters shopping around for an alternative, Reform are too crude and too much like what they're revolting against. The Lib Dems are the usual protest outlet, but are embroiled in the Westminster circus which is so off-putting these days. Which leaves the Greens as the default option, and one many are prepared to support because even if they're "lefty" they can't do much damage on the borough or district council. Their environmental credibility, their political cleanliness, and their coming from a low base endears them to a swathe of loyal Tory support fed up with the status quo but for whom Labour is a step too far.

Between now and the next election, there's no reason to believe this dynamic won't continue eating into the Tory local government base. But success here will bring the Greens some difficulties. Can their party sustain a coalition comprising former Tories from the shires and the younger, more proletarianised, urbanised, and radical socialised workers? With Labour in government, while the Tories in opposition would remain repugnant for most working age people might some of the former Tories attracted to the Greens now return to the fold in the unlikely event of the party's next leader not being a right winger determined to head the party into the wilderness? These are all problems for the future. In as much there are certainties in politics, here are a couple: the Greens will continue to build before the election. And after, though there will be tensions between the two sources of the party's support Starmer's authoritarian and managerial politics will open the gate to an historic opportunity.

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Thursday 17 August 2023

The Petit Bourgeoisie and Politics

Dan Evans's A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petite-Bourgeoisie yet (copies here) sounds fascinating. As is this long form interview with Aaron Bastani. As someone who has written a lot about the changing nature of class and its impact on politics, and the Conservative Party's mass support, a careful and fruitful read is on the cards.

Feel free to follow Dan on X/Twitter here.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Keir Starmer's Radicalism

Is Labour going to be more radical in office than the image currently projected by Keir Starmer and the shadow cabinet? Yes, if you take this New Statesman headline as good coin. But what counts as radicalism? After all, Tony Blair's period in office, which saw the retrenchment of the Thatcherite settlement under new branding and the continued undermining of Labour's own base was dubbed "radical". Mostly by Blairite loyalists and no one else, but the point remains.

Radical, if it's to mean anything in politics, refers to a break with the status quo. I.e. The conventions, practices, and ideas that dominate the bourgeois mainstream. But anyone can do that. Boris Johnson's contempt for constitutional niceties and probity would, by this definition, cast him as a radical politician. But this was subordinated to a very conservative aim (self-promotion) with equally conservative outcomes: the continued political dominance of the Conservative Party. Radicalism has to do more than upset: it has to fundamentally threaten the power relationships that structure and are upheld by a political settlement, and does so in a way that opens up opportunities for more democracy. Radicalism is a politics that embraces the potentials of the mass, and looks to invite the demos in. It cannot therefore ever be about replacing one ossified elite structure by another. New Labour then? Very obviously not radical. The "gains" of that period of government, where they were not undercut, raised living standards and made life better for millions of people. But it did not alter the fundamentals.

And according to our Freddie Hayward, our NS scribe, neither will Starmerism. He says that Labour have opted for a "better managers" strategy, and as such have decided to follow political opinion. Which, in practice, has meant not saying much. But we can look forward to a veritable policy blitz this Autumn as per Starmer's five missions. There are announcements due on net zero, economic growth, and plans to cut violent crime. These are the headline grabbers-to-be, but the real radicalism on offer is virtually cost-free: planning regulations, public sector reform, devolution, collective bargaining.

Are these radical? They are certainly different to what the Tories are offering, as well as Labour pre-Corbyn. The change to planning will allow building on the greenbelt, which would increase housing supply and should contain the rise in prices. Except this is what developers have been lobbying for for years. Reforming the public sector suggests making state services work better and be more responsive, but could easily be the Trojan horse for more private sector involvement and reinscribing the state/citizen relationship as provider/customer. I doubt private health and other outsourcing specialists are bunging shadow ministers because they agree with a radical democratic vision of politics. Devolution will see more powers pushed out of Westminster, but this is more consistent with setting up a new regime of accumulation. And the one unalloyed good, the expansion of collective employment rights and bargaining backed by statute itself owes more to managerial imperatives than an endorsement of workers' self-organisation.

What of the other claim Hayward makes? He says that for all Labour's caution on fiscal matters, "you can already picture [Rachel] Reeves standing at the despatch box, brow furrowed, proclaiming that action is required because the situation is worse than she understood." Can you? This is exceedingly unlikely, because she routinely defers to Bank of England orthodoxy. Be it on the causes of inflation and how it should be dealt with, her understanding of state finances, attitude to social security recipients, and suspicious attitude toward spending money, all come with a whiff of City consensus about them. Just because something is broken and it's necessary to fix it doesn't mean a government will cleave to this necessity. As the lessons of this very Tory government teaches us week in, week out. But supposing Reeves, faced with collapsing public services, does act. The options are borrowing more or taxing more. Closing tax loopholes, equalising capital gains and income tax rates, and upping the higher bands to address the NHS and teacher retention crises would be welcome. Chances are it would be very popular, but it's not radical.

Here's where we get to the nub of the matter. Labourism, apart from the programme the party had between 2015 and 2019, has never been radical. It is an ameliorative project, the political expression of a workers' movement that has long been integrated into the UK's constitutional order. It is circumspect and loyal, and is intellectually impoverished and intellectually elitist at the same time. The shock of Starmerism isn't that it abandoned Labour's radical tradition, but has rather forcibly returned the party to the historical mean. Starmer's politics does not break with Labourism, it's a rude instantiation as authentic to its tradition as any of its predecessors in government. If there is a radicalism here, it's the stark way Starmerism is presenting Labourism's true face to the public's gaze.

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Tuesday 15 August 2023

Tronti's Defeatism

Farewell Mario Tronti, theorist of operaismo and a remaining source of inspiration for radical thinking and politics. But in an intriguing short interview given in 2015, he conveyed a message and a feeling entirely at odds with the optimism that infuses his best known work, Workers and Capital. That message was of his defeat, of our defeat, and ultimately his obsolescence and that of his politics. For a man who participated in some of the mightiest movements the working class in the West have ever seen, a movement that threw into sharp relief the question of "who rules" and came close to answering with "the workers do", the retreat from that high point to the gutter that Italian politics has become is enough to make a pessimist of anyone.

Tronti's pessimism speaks to us now because the left in this country has also been defeated. But is there anything we can take from his gloomy prognosis? Do these remarks tell us to give up, not least because Tronti talks approvingly of reading and studying reactionary thought? I would suggest not. He speaks of how operaismo and the workerist politics of Workers and Capital were situated in the moment of active and open class struggle, but that his error, and that of his comrades, was to mistake this for a revolutionary rupture. "The workers wanted a wage rise, not the revolution ... We saw red. But it wasn’t the red of a new dawn, rather that of the sunset." He says the experience taught him political realism and that the values of the left - progressivism, historicism, and Enlightenment - suppose too simple a set of solutions to the problems we face. As such, Tronti lately engaged with the world through the tinge of "serene desperation". Not least because what came of the revolutionary events of the 1960s was nothing that really challenged capitalism. Radicalisation (in Italy) led to some taking the dead end to terrorism, while for most it meant a generational turnover in the managerial class. Therefore we have two 20th centuries, the large and the small. The large was characterised by earth shattering events. The 1960s called time on that. And what came after was the small - a period of unoriginality, of low stakes politics, of (effectively) capitalism without class struggle. An endless present of stasis and decay.

Tronti does not rule out hope for the future, but just doesn't see it. He said,
This period is very confused. Everything carries on its own way. At the start of the twentieth century there was talk of a great crisis of modernity. Then it came. And now we’re up to our ears in it, we don’t know in what direction to go. So it’s stalled. You look without seeing.
This is what his realism tells him, but he also says that politics needs faith and passion. He said his communism wasn't grounded in science, but in hope. Implying that a new radical politics is possible through a fusion of the two, but without offering any direction to possible flashpoints. Tronti remarks that he's on a borderline, and like Walter Benjamin's angel of history with its eyes firmly fixed to the past his self-declared obsolescence suggested he had nothing more to say. "My father believed in a better world. He wanted to see it. Bless him. I say to young people: thank god I’m not your age. I’m glad that I’m going to see the back of this world. That’s what I say."

Not revelling in defeat, but a case of bluntly stating it. And a sense of how it put Tronti through the ringer. In the context of Britain, we've had our own defeats. The industrial losses of the 1980s. And more recently, the experience of Corbynism and its defeat from within and without. Tronti's diagnosis of a directionless society fits our predicament. There is no certainty about how to build a radical, insurgent class politics above and beyond the the defensive struggles foisted on the labour movement by the Tories and their deployment of inflation as a weapon. Stick with Labour, despite the dead hand of Starmerism? Go with the Greens and their limitations? Try and build something new? There is no guide to the way out of the impasse in Tronti, but maybe his warnings about faith and his (cautious) affirmation of realism offer a hint.

Thinking beyond Tronti, being resolutely realistic there are three observations we can make about the conjuncture in this country that suggests his rendering of defeat isn't entirely generalisable. Tronti's thought had to grapple with the decomposition of revolutionary consciousness, and later the political and industrial institutions of the working class in Italy. And then the seeming dispersal of our class as any kind of coherent actor. Like Italy, Britain underwent a similar process, but what differed was the Corbyn moment. Despite its problems, relative incoherence, and its structural tendency to compromise, it acted as a political magnet that, for an interlude, brought mass politics into the mainstream and came within a whisker of inflicting significant defeats on the Tories and the centrist/liberal establishment both. This didn't happen because people-in-general responded to the moral goodness of Corbyn and his politics, but because it spoke to the inchoate but consolidating interests of the rising class of workers. This had two aspects: a push back against the hostility shown working age people by the Tories and the neglect of the previous Labour leadership. And the political consequences of immaterial labour. The defeat of Corbynism, as painful as it was, took place at a moment of the continued consolidation and coming to consciousness of the so-called socialised worker. As such, despite Starmerism the left inside Labour, though muted, is stronger than it was before Corbynism. Street movements and mobilisations are more frequent and stronger. And the industrial battles of the labour movement are of a magnitude greater than anything seen since the early 1990s. The Corbyn moment has passed, but the return of socialist and communist politics has not.

Tronti was worried that latter day readers of Workers and Capital were wasting their time because the class organisation and class struggles it researched and reflected on were buried in the past. There were few lessons to learn in a context characterised by quietude. However, what links that work to the present are the contributions of Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Maurizio Lazzarato, and Antonio Negri - among others. The last's championing of immaterial labour, its embedding in new configurations of exploitation, and potentials for a new radical politics have been variously criticised as too hopeful and optimistic. An excess of Trontian faith, perhaps. But in the essentials, Negri is right. There are no guarantees in politics, only probabilities. His understanding of the reconstitution of the working class as immaterial workers and the consequences this has for the intertwining of subject, value, and interest formation has been borne out historically. His is not a hypothesis but increasingly a class reality his theory reflects and reports on. As such, where all Tronti could see was a messy and bewildering closure the increasingly strategic role immaterial labour plays in capital accumulation opens up new points of struggle and new directions for history.

This is why we need to think about our defeat differently to Tronti's defeatism. His was the mourning of a famous, epochal defeat. Our malaise, however, is the consequence of something that was and is significant, but not on the same scale. It was a bruise inflicted on something new, on a rising power pregnant with new potentials. As such our defeat need not be seen in Trontian terms. It does not have to be as debilitating. And, indeed, is proving itself not to be.

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Sunday 13 August 2023

Stoke Chartist Festival 20th August 2023

For folks in and around North Staffordshire.

This post is from Adam Colclough and first appeared on the North Staffs News site. There is also a link tree for the festival here with all the information you need.

Local trades unionists will join musicians and other performers to commemorate the death of Leek born Josiah Heapy in the Burslem Chartist riots of 1842.

The First Stoke Chartist Festival will take place behind the town hall on Market place, Burslem, on Sunday 20th August and is a co-production organized by New Vic Borderlines and the People’s History Association of North Staffordshire (PHANS).

Support, including the loan of a fire engine converted into a mobile stage previously used when Jeremy Corbyn visited Hanley, has been provided by unions including Unite, the FBU, and Unison.

New Vic Borderlines is an award-winning community arts program that uses theatre to give a voice to those who have been marginalised.

Director Sue Moffatt has written a play based on the events surrounding the Chartist riots and the death of Josiah Heapy that will be performed on the day by members of the community supported by three professional actors.

In keeping with the Chartist theme trades unions active in North Staffordshire will be present to provide information about the work they do to support working people today.

There will also be stalls run by local groups including Period Power, NORSCARF, and community support charity Better Together, as well as craft activities and a display of work relating to Chartism created by students at local schools.

Josiah Heapy was born in Leek and died on 16th August 1842 when troops broke up an open-air Chartist meeting taking place on Swan Bank, Burslem, causing a riot that resulted in damage to several prominent local landmarks.

In the aftermath of the riot 146 Chartists were imprisoned and 54 were transported to Australia.

The Burslem Chartist riots have been described as the ‘Potteries Peterloo’ after the more famous riots in Manchester.

In 2019 a successful campaign saw a commemorative plaque unveiled in Burslem near to the spot where Heapy was killed. A street on a nearby housing development has since also been named after him.

Jason Hill, a member of PHANS who also took part in the campaign to have a street named after Josiah Heapy said the festival will “honour” Josiah Heapy and other trades unionists who “fought for the freedoms that we take for granted today”.

He emphasised the important role played by Heapy and other Chartists in creating the trades union movement in North Staffordshire and nationally.

He believes the festival will “raise awareness of this important episode in the history of Burslem which, sadly, seems to be largely forgotten today."

The festival will feature speakers, including Chrissie Gibson a living relative of Josiah Heapy, music, poetry, and performances of the play at various locations around the town.

The festival will take place on 20th August at Market Place, Burslem, ST6 4AT between 11:00am and 4:00pm.

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Friday 11 August 2023

The Sinking of Boat Week

With Rishi Sunak out of the country, this week was supposed to be "boat week". An opportunity for the Tories to play to their (self-) perceived strengths by beating up on asylum seekers again. It's one of the Prime Minister's priorities, after all. Having been thwarted over the Rwanda plan and there being no signs of the boats ferrying people across the Channel ending, Suella Braverman needed something to burnish her reputation for cynical brutality. The timing of the opening of the government's first floating prison was just the ticket.

Despite the campaigns of opportunist backbenchers, the sensible plan to house asylum seekers in hotels as opposed to detention centres/internment camps has come under pressure from the Tories' press allies. It has allowed for a whipping up of froth about the supposed luxury that greets the "guests", as well as complaints about the money getting shelled out by the "taxpayer". This would be ideal political pickings for the Tories if they weren't the ones overseeing it. Having long decided that posturing is more important than resettling traumatised people fleeing war, drought, and poverty, finding a "solution" that earns them cruelty points was a must.

The employment of the Bibby Stockholm is part of a £1.6bn "migrant barge" scheme. Timing its opening to boat week was, of course, intentional. And, as with so many outrages committed by this Tory government, they wanted publicity for their "tough stance" drummed up by their political opponents. And so the Fire Brigades' Union said the barge was a "potential death trap". There was a Mirror piece reporting how one guy suffering with TB was to be interned there, and NHS Dorset had prepared a plan for infectious outbreaks, which the government completely ignored. But these were the optics the Tories wanted. The more unpleasant life on the barge was painted, the more political credit they accrue from beating down on a long-scapegoated group. And so the concerns were brushed aside and the first inmates boarded the barge.

Unfortunately for the Tories, nasty politics only works if you're seen to be competent implementing it. With Legionella found in the on-board water system, the Home Office was forced to evacuate the inmates. It appears basic checks were not carried out, which leaves the Stockholm's owners on an unwanted legal hook, while making the government look amateurish. It is getting to some, with anonymous anti-Braverman briefings doing the rounds. Not great news for someone with leadership ambitions. It will be weeks before the barge can be used again, and who knows what delays it might cause the rest of the "fleet" as they get checked out.

For anyone hoping this episode will lead to Braverman's sacking or a change in policy, both are incredibly unlikely. Sunak deliberately took Braverman back on precisely so these kinds of schemes can get dreamed up and implemented. With absolutely nothing positive to offer, the Tories are stuck in a rut where they think culture war and racist policies can pull the same populist trick Boris Johnson managed. It should be obvious by now that this was a one-off and the circumstances surrounding it ended when Britain left the EU and Jeremy Corbyn was replaced as Labour leader. No. Sunak, Braverman, and their disgusting attacks on refugees stands and falls together. As it surely will when the election comes.

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Wednesday 9 August 2023

The Pirates of Dark Water for the Super Nintendo

A video game that works better as an allegory than the short-lived allegorical cartoon it was based on? The Pirates of Dark Water was a fantasy series from Hanna-Barbera that aired on Children's BBC at some point in the early 90s. I sometimes occasionally caught it at tea time, though by then my telly of choice was officially Teenage Health Freak and The Word. Because it didn't catch on, Pirates had a very limited run and toddled off into obscurity. But not before it spawned two licensed titles for the Super Nintendo and the Genesis/Mega Drive. The latter was a run-of-the-mill platformer that also got a European release and now goes for silly money on eBay. The SNES version didn't see life outside of North America, and was a completely different game - being a beat 'em up in the Final Fight mode of things. And a fairly good one at that.

The premise of the show was the world of Mer is imperilled by the mysterious and noxious dark water. This substance, said to be leaching from the core of the planet, threatens to envelop the entire world and consume everything. The hero of the piece, Ren, and his doughty band of misfits sail the world seeking 13 treasures that, when brought together, will banish the dark water and make everything good again. As part of a popular cultural effort to raise awareness of climate change, the backdrop of a creeping doom and its link to our travails was more subtle than Captain Planet et al. But having "dark water" as the big bad and it enjoying more than a passing resemblance to oil situated the show well.

The plot of the SNES game is no different. Collect the treasures, save the planet. But as with the cartoon, there are baddies working to thwart Ren's efforts. Namely the crew of pirate captain Bloth who wants the treasures for his own nefarious purposes. This provides an excuse to beat up a roster of enemies, followed by the standard boss guarding the end of each stage. Their defeat reveals a treasure and the completion of Ren's quest is a step closer. On the journey, players can choose one of three characters in solo play or co-op. Ren is the standard character with a balance of speed and strength. Tula, an "ecomancer" and the franchise's token woman is speedy but weak, whereas Ioz is slow but strong. Each have a fairly limited move set that doesn't take advantage of the Super Nintendo controller's extra buttons. They have a standard attack, a desperation attack (which loses your character energy if it connects with an opponent), and a strong attack. Sadly, many an enemy - including some bosses - can be offed simply by spamming this move.

Nevertheless, Pirates is an entertaining beater. The enemies are quite chunky and there is a good variety of them. Despite there not being any more than three opponents on screen at once things can get challenging at times, which makes pulling through with just a sliver of energy left very satisfying. On the whole, the graphics are well drawn and competently animated for a game of this sort, and the sound design is fine. The tunes are appropriate - just don't ask me if they were from the original. There are the unnecessary but SNES signature mode seven interludes, and there is a touch of creativity. Late on the play style flips from brawler to a brief horizontal shooter. Can't say many beat 'em ups do that.

The game is not without problems though. Unlike Streets of Rage 2, it does outstay its welcome. There are too many levels and so the problem attending most beaters - repetition - manifests. This isn't helped by how the roster of enemies are very quickly introduced, so there are no interesting challenges later on. The developers tried getting round this creatively via the shooter encounter, but also relied on old tricks. Such as chasms to jump over, falling boulders/fireballs, and sometimes combining the two. Not especially useful when the jumping mechanics aren't perfect. On my playthroughs this resulted in a few cheap and unnecessary deaths. There are also hazards which can effect enemies as well as you. Because the AI isn't especially intelligent, if you park yourself parallel to on screen flames, spikes, or patches of dark water your opponents will happily run into them until expiration.

Entertaining then, but not exactly a must play. But what is worth revisiting is the allegorical aspect of the game. Back in 1994 it was infused with the climate change zeitgeist, but almost 30 years on the game sums up exactly where we are politically with the environmental crisis. Managing zero carbon and the switch to renewables is a bit of a slog, but as per the game when one batch of opponents are confronted and refuted, the same old names keep coming back with the same old attacks. The "new" just differ in terms of name and image, but their behaviours don't. It's the same enemies, over and over. Despite the global crisis getting worse, there is no putting aside of ambitions, the chance to make money, or interests to tackle the common threat. Indeed, for Captain Bloth the coming disaster is an opportunity for an authoritarian politics. He could be a disaster capitalist. And at the end of the game, with the defeat of the baddies the ship runs aground and the force of the collision catapults the 13 treasures all over the world. They are 'lost' and have to be recovered again, lest Bloth gets them first. This doesn't preface a second compulsory playthrough as per Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, but suggests struggle without end. Thus a firm conclusion is avoided, just as it was abbreviated in the TV cancellation. But it works for our climate change allegory as well. It underlines the necessity to never stop and keep pushing, no matter how repetitive it is. The alternative is something worse than game over.

Monday 7 August 2023

The Repeated Surrender to Tory Framing

In the 18 months prior to the 1997 general election, Labour was often criticised from the left for being overly cautious. This gently-does-it was encapsulated best by the Blair-Brown pledge to stick with Conservative spending plans for the first two years of government. The idea was to settle any jitters so-called Middle England (the right wing press) might have about New Labour, while taking the sting out of any attacks the Tories might launch. As the self-identified party of economic competence, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown wanted to annex this Tory asset and neutralise it. By this time, with Labour enjoying similar poll leads as the party does today it was probably moot. But it was understandable. Economic concerns torpedoed the 1992 general election for Labour, and so nothing was left to chance. Accepting these plans came with a price. It allowed the Tories to litter the Treasury with land mines that Blair and Brown then promised to tread on. The most explosive of which was cutting social security support for single parents, a political trap designed to force Labour to attack some of the most vulnerable women for point scoring purposes. And true to their word, the new government saw the attack through.

In other areas, however, New Labour was not so reticent. Though its programme didn't offer a qualitative change in the sense of breaking with the pro-market, neoliberal consensus established by Thatcher and bedded down by Major, a combination of rhetorically vicious attacks on the Tories, some good-sounding lines (tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime; education, education, education), a set of very modest pledges that at least gestured toward a fairer society, riding the tide of hope, and the baleful record of the Tories themselves ensured Labour scored a crushing victory.

Nearly 30 years on, and it seems the lessons learned by Keir Starmer from this period is to abandon the field of politics altogether. Or, to put it another way, accept Tory framing as sacrosanct on everything. The dishonest attacks by the likes of Grant Shapps that accuse Labour of being the political wing of Just Stop Oil are taken seriously by just one man: the Leader of the Opposition. Blair and Brown capitulated on economics but retained some autonomy on other political matters. Starmer, however, has surrendered across the board. North Sea exploration must be honoured, so the Tories gleefully issue scores of new licences while Starmer attacks Just Stop Oil as "contemptible". The Tories have their stop the boats/Rwanda scheme, and in their race to the gutter they want to use unsafe barges - redolent of 19th century prison hulks - to detain asylum seekers. This finds no opposition from Starmer, who says Labour will keep them too for as long as there's a backlog. And on the NHS, having thoroughly marketised it the Tories are busily defunding medicine and health to create a two-tier service. To this all Labour manages is a shrug, followed by a commitment to using private providers to plug the gaps the Tories have left. Despite it being a complete non-starter.

You could call this cowardly behaviour, but that lets Starmer and friends off the hook. They know an election win is virtually certain. You can look at the polls and note how Labour's double digit leads have been the norm for over a year now. The Tories have had their Black Wednesday moment. There's no chance of a John Major repeat, especially with Labour's huge support among working age people and a collapse in the Tory vote among the older/retired base. Blair's and Brown's caution on economics was well founded, as much as one might disagree with their take then. There is no such excuse now. Which ineluctably leads to one conclusion, that Starmer and co are not so much interested in power for a purpose as power in itself. His project, as correctly divined here many years ago, is interested only in restoring the authority of and modernising the state. It is an authoritarian project that puts state managers in the driving seat of politics, and anything that benefits people in general is a by-product of and not the objective of Starmerist policy. Without wanting to get too romantic about the history of the Labour Party, for them Labourism is about ministerial cars and briefcases. Not using the lever of policy to make life better or, with the looming catastrophe of climate change, dealing with serious and unavoidable problems.

This explains Starmer's willingness to accept Tory framings. There are no "tough choices" here, just a set of easy things to say that keeps the Tory media off their backs until they win the general election by default. And because they have accepted Tory framing, don't be surprised if Starmer is constantly steered by the front bench opposite as it gallops off further to the right. What a despicable position for the Labour Party to be in.

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Saturday 5 August 2023

A Comment on Political Commentary

Apart from the handsome careers it occasionally awards, what is the point of political commentary? It's a question I've been asking a lot since cutting back on writing thanks to the tedious trinity of burn out/having nothing to say/intervention of other interesting things. What sparked my recent episode of introspection was this piece for UnHerd by chief academic Conservative Party whisperer, Tim Bale. The article doesn't say much. He talks about past hubris circa the 1997 general election and he enumerates the difficulties the party had adjusting to being out of government. Bale discusses how opposition parties fall back on fundamentals while celebrating their time in office, and how the Tories then believed voters shared the rose-tinted specs they looked at their recent past through. He says opposition is crap because one cannot shape public opinion, and success in second order elections can delude a party into thinking the issues they run with are more of a vote catcher at the crucial general election than they actually are. The Tories' recent lurch into pro-motorist, anti-green rubbish off the back of the Uxbridge by-election being an apposite demonstration of the point.

What have we learned from spending a few minutes with Bales's take on the Tories? Not much. Except that the times Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn shifted politics on Europe and immigration, and austerity and economics respectively were impossible accomplishments seeing as they were achieved from opposition. But there is no sense here of why the Tories turned right in the late 1990s, nor a discussion of how they are likely to go even further right once Labour dispose of them at the next general election. What's missing is explanation. We have a superficial description of recent political history, but no grasp of the social relations, the articulations of interests, the networks between Tory MPs and capital - sometimes embodied within the person of a politician, such as Rishi Sunak's relationship to the City and his closeness to InfoSys - that can lay out the trajectory of the Tories. I haven't read Bale's latest book on the Tories after Brexit, but the common refrain from reviews is the he-said she-said approach - that the thorough scholarship is not paired with a convincing narrative that ties together and offers an argument about the crisis the Tories are in. I don't know if that's a fair criticism, but it's certainly one that can be made about his earlier history of the Tories from Thatcher to Cameron.

And this is where most political commentary sticks. At the level of opinion untroubled by a cognisance of the forces in play. But superficiality doesn't mean it comes without a depth of affect. The frothing nonsense served up by The Mail and The Telegraph is not meant to be "true". Its job is speak at existing prejudices, whip them up if necessary, and cohere groups of support for the Tories. Most liberal/centrist and centre left commentary is little different. Though UnHerd is an unusual venue for Bale's missive, this genre of comment, which is published plentifully elsewhere, reinforces the idea that the Tories are crazy, blinded by ideology, dogmatically mistaken, and not fit to run a bath let alone a country. It too coheres a constituency characterised by an anti-Tory sensibility that dissociates their opposition to and distaste of the Conservatives from any claim on interests. Save the ardent desire to see the state run properly, because that's in everyone's interest.

When the right has to confront its opposite number, it's rarely a contest of ideas as per the useless marketplace metaphor. They hype them up as conspiratorial elites, often on the most spurious of grounds, or propagate stories that demonstrate their hypocrisy. This is how the Tories have handled Keir Starmer, and that this happens time and again shows it's more than a rhetorical feature among a range of possible strategies. It's a structural projection of their own organic relations with capital, the state, and other fundamental institutions. This is their everyday, and it cannot but condition how they view political opponents. Likewise, centrism avoids ideas too. Their technocratic habitus is the root of their critique of the right, hence the ritual use of 'ideology' and madness as explainers of Tory actions. And why they will always have time for a "good Tory". I.e. Someone who shares aspects of their very grown up, disinterested, results-oriented view of how to do politics and how the state should be run.

Faced with something outside of their experience, the result is complete overreaction. For the Tories and the rise of UKIP, it staked Britain's EU membership to prevent the shedding a three or four seats to the misfits, loons, and closet racists. Losing the referendum was a small trifle to be paid for keeping the party going. For the centrists, it was their demonology of Jeremy Corbyn and the movement assembled behind his candidacy and leadership. To save the Labour Party, it was necessary to destroy it. Even now, the centre and the Labour right have no explanation for how and why Corbynism happened. All they knew is it had to be stopped, and that's the only lesson that need be learned. Whereas for most of the right, UKIP and the Brexit Party were warnings - and reasons to stick with traditional concerns.

Political comment, establishment political comment then is always expressive. And in so doing it more or less encapsulates the two orientations of the British ruling class: those who have no problem with or compunction about the reality of the state as an institution of their class, and the other who are squeamish of its reality, prefer to forget it, and will go to almost any length to deny it.

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Friday 4 August 2023

Basshunter - Now You're Gone

I was planning on writing today, but a spot of wardrobe assembly got in the way. I've decided the price of radio silence is humiliation, so it's time to announce how 15 years after the fact and some distance from the song's ubiquity that Basshunter's Now You're Gone is an absolute banger. Sorry, not sorry.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Five Most Popular Posts in July

Where did that month go? Politics-wise it was a bit of a wash out, certainly not as fast-paced and as eventful as this time last year. But whether the flow is lackadaisical or rapid, I'm here chronicling what I can. And here's what you folk read the most in July.

1. And Then They Came for the Soft Left
2. Strong on the Weak
3. Making Sense of Tory "Corbynism"
4. Beyond the July By-Elections
5. Along Comes Another New Left Wing Party

Going back to the start of the month, news that long-time Labour member and advocate of progressive alliances, Neal Lawson, was under investigation for a two-year-old tweet excited more fretful comment about Labour's authoritarian turn under Keir Starmer. And so it was almost this blog's duty to step in and consider the issues. And yes, it should have been clear to anyone that when Starmer turned the dirty business of organising the party and fixing elections to Labour First, their attacks would inevitably extend to the soft left. Sticking with Starmerism, Labour ditched its promise to get rid of the two child benefit cap all because Starmer wanted to look "tough". Funny how toughness in politics always equates to dumping on the weak, never taking on the strong. In at three was some reflections on John Rentoul fretting over the likely right wing direction the Tories are going to head in after their electoral pummelling. I felt duty bound to put any such move on sociologically sound footing, and not evaporate the causes away into "madness" so mainstream writers and commentators don't have to think too hard about it. There were also some by-elections in July that were very bad for the Tories. But as the one they retained was partly thanks to negative campaigning about Ultra Low Emission Zones, I forecast this would become the centrepiece of their political strategy from now on. And so it has proven. And bringing up the rear is news of another new left party, or rather regroupment of existing outfits, under a new banner. The barriers to success appear insurmountable, but aren't helped either by not having a clear purpose separate from the already-existing extra-Labour left groupings that already exist.

What did the fickle audiences pass over this month? I'm going to put two posts out there, because it's my blog and I'll plug if I want to. The first is another rare Tony Blair intervention, this time on the NHS. Thinking about what he's proposing and the politics that come tangled up in it are very important to grasp how the NHS will continue to provide capital guaranteed markets under a future Labour government. And last night's piece on Tory fossil fuel mania deserves a punt as it won't be immediately apparent on the side bar.

Have to day I am getting well suited to this more sedate pace of posting. Reading books and doing other things in the evening is quite nice, so don't expect 30 more missives in August - unless real happenings happen, or something. If you haven't already don't forget to follow the free (mostly) weekly newsletter, and if you like what I do (and you're not skint), you can help support the blog. Following me on Twitter and Facebook are cost-free ways of showing your backing for this corner of the internet.