Saturday 30 September 2023

What I've Been Reading Recently

Before September, things were a bit slow on the blog. Here's a partial explanation - a bumper crop of books read over the last few months.

The Steep Approach to Garbadale by Iain Banks
The Poverty of Theory by EP Thompson
The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts
Rereading Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism by Christian Fuchs
Difficulties with Girls by Kingsley Amis
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Eversion by Alastair Reynolds
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Dry Heart by Natalia Hinzberg
We Are Satellites by Sarah Pinsker
Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer
Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity by Jurgen Habermas
Kepler by John Banville
Espedair Street by Iain Banks
Marxism and Literature by Raymond Williams
I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman
Till Eulenspiegel by "N"
Vathek by William Beckford
Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
A Man from the North by Arnold Bennett
Ending Up by Kingsley Amis
Hegemony Now by Jeremy Gilbert and Alex Williams
Johnathan Wild and The Voyage to Lisbon by Henry Fielding
Legitimation Crisis by Jurgen Habermas
Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Ambroise Choderlos De Laclos
The Book of Evidence by John Banville

Not a bad wodge, to be honest. Starting with the Adam Roberts, I'm sorry to say I really can't recommend this one. Part science fiction, part weird religious fever dream it just didn't go down well. Nor, when I think about it, have many of his other books. Why do I keep reading them? But sticking with SF, I cannot praise Jacqueline Harpman's I Who Have Never Known Men enough. I suppose it loosely fits in the genre, but its strong literary sensibility, existential bent and its beguiling bleakness makes it one of the best novels I've read in recent years. Why is it not better known?

A very well known book is David Copperfield. Apparently Dickens's favourite of his, and championed by Virginia Woolf - who couldn't otherwise stand his work - it every bit deserves its reputation. The characterisation is superb and memorable. The celebrated Mr Micawber and Uriah Heep, the ridiculously overt humble bragger are characters that stand out in English literature for a reason. I'm going to stop gushing now in case I embarrass myself. In the fun corner is Till Eugenspiegel, a 500+ year old work full of childish laughs. Also, My Sister, the Serial Killer. What to so when your sister's boyfriends keep turning up dead and her only explanation is *innocent face*? What to make of the notorious Les Liaisons Dangereuses? It's totally tame where modern readers are concerned but it's still a fascinating book. Told through a series of letters between a pair of utterly amoral aristocratic players, we have an 18th century crash course in grooming, gaslighting, and good old comeuppances. An excellent translation (mine was the Routledge edition) makes it a great read.

I thought it was about time I got round to the Dialectic of Enlightenment seeing as its been on my shelf for decades, and I didn't get on with it at all. Perhaps it's because the book's contents are so thoroughly embedded in leftist critiques of culture that I didn't get much from it. Much more interesting was the Federici. Strongly recommended though, as Richard Seymour said to me, the main thesis (that the witch-hunts were central to primitive accumulation) comes with a health warning - and he recommended these critiques. I should also mention Hegemony Now, Jem and Alex's book on, you guessed it, hegemony now. Very readable, it makes good use of Gramsci, Deleuze, Negri, Raymond Williams and more and provides a theory of interest that handily conceptualises how I've been using it for years. Strong recommend.

What have you been reading recently?

Friday 29 September 2023

Quarter Three By-Election Results 2023

This quarter 101,771 votes were cast in 53 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 24 council seats changed hands. For comparison you can view Quarter two's results here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Q3 2022

* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There were two by-elections in Wales
*** There were five Independent clashes
**** Others consisted of Alba (70), Gwlad (8), Heritage Party (55), Reform (278, 23, 58, 61, 174, 35, 133, 66), Scottish Family Party (42), Scottish Libertarian (23), SDP (24), TUSC (52, 12, 5, 28, 26, 19, 74), Upminster and Cranham Residents' Association (1,642), Vectis (178), Women's Equality Party (34), Yorkshire Party (28, 42, 19, 27)

The curtain falls on another quarter and how are things looking? Not fantastic for the Tories. As has been noted plenty of times here before, the closeness of its popular vote to Labour's belies a real problem. Council by-elections come with an inbuilt Conservative advantage because older and retired people - among whom they have disproportionate support - are even likelier to vote than younger cohorts. Therefore, if the Tories support is weakening here they are in big, big trouble.

Still, the Liberal Democrats are the real victors here, managing a net gain of seven and even out-organising Labour in seats stood. It's that kind of complacency that will cost Labour in the long run. Also, a solid performance from the Greens continues. Can they keep it going?

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Local Council By-Elections September 2023

This month saw 34,725 votes cast in 22 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Nine council seats changed hands. For comparison with August's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Aug
+/- Sep 22
Lib Dem

* There were two by-elections in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were two Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Alba (70), Reform (35, 133, 66), Scottish Libertarian (23), TUSC (19, 74), Women's Equality Party (34), Yorkshire Party (19, 27)

After the excitement of the last couple of by-election round-ups, everything has settled back to "normal" this month. Labour win the popular vote by an unconvincing margin, the Tories come in second, the Liberal Democrats do best in hauling in most councillors, and the Greens drop from contenders to also rans. If there is something interesting buried in these results are the Tories' ability to still win by-elections, despite everything. They took seats from the Greens, Labour, and the SNP, and it's only their weakness elsewhere that forced a net loss on them. A warning then that where circumstances are right, the Tories can buck the national trend.

6 September:
Spelthorne, Ashford Town, Con gain from Grn

7 September:
Broadland, Thorpe St Andrew North West, Con gain from Lab
City of London, Bread Street, Ind hold
Manchester, Brooklands, Lab hold
Newcastle-under-Lyme, Audley, Lab hold
Newcastle-under-Lyme, Knutton, Lab hold
Shropshire, Worfield, LDem gain from Con

14 September:
Barking & Dagenham, Mayesbrook, Lab hold
Chorley, Croston, Mawdesley & Euxton South, Con hold
Lancashire, Chorley Rural West, Lab gain from Con
Lincolnshire, Carholme, Lab hold
Liverpool, Fazakerley East, Lab hold
Swale, Minster Cliffs, Ind gain from Con

21 September:
Colchester, Highwoods, LDem gain from Lab
Kingston-upon-Hull, Bricknell, Lab hold
Milton Keynes, Newport Pagnell South, LDem gain from Con
South Ayrshire, Girvan & South Carrick, Con gain from SNP

28 September:
Highland, Tain & Easter Ross, Ind gain from LDem
North Yorkshire, Hutton Rudby & Osmortherley, Con hold
South Norfolk, Mulbarton & Stoke Holy Cross, LDem hold
South Norfolk, South Wymondham, LDem hold
Wolverhampton, Bushbury South & Low Hill, Lab hold

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Thursday 28 September 2023

Keir Starmer's Authoritarian Assurances

It's party conference season and the Labour leadership are ensuring its annual gathering goes without a hitch. That means no resolutions running counter to Keir Starmer's policy platform, such as it is. No defeats to trouble the smooth ascent to office. It is to be a stage-managed affair where the Great Leader's praise is to be sung, where shadow cabinet banalities are welcomed as profundities, and Labour's broad church are seen to be singing from the same hymn sheet. This is the new model Labour Party, a far cry from the times when Starmer himself went rogue on the podium and broke the discipline he's now enforcing. Another symptom of Starmerism's incipient totalitarianism?

Control freakery is in the DNA of Starmer's politics. As a manager before he was a politician, "governing" is a matter of issuing orders and expecting them to be carried out. This sensibility also has deep roots in the Labour tradition, of expecting workers (or "working people" according to Starmer's list of approved words) to shuffle their way to polling stations and elect very clever people who know so much more about politics and policy than they do, and will keep things ticking over so they don't have to think about such lofty things. However, it would be naive to trace the clamping down on party conference purely in terms of Starmer's personal predilections and Labour's Fabian habitus.

As Edward Potter rightly notes, the leadership are afraid of debate. Having captured the party on a false prospectus, there has not been any votes on or popular enthusiasm for the shift to the right. If the always-overrated Wes Streeting, for example, had to debate his enthusiasm for using private providers in the NHS, he'd be roundly humiliated. If Rachel Reeves had to account for her adoption of George Osborne's fiscal rules, her reputation as a serious economist would not survive the encounter. They know this craven servicing of vested interests is indefensible, so why discuss them at all?

But this doesn't go far enough either. You might add into the mix electoral calculation. The growing consensus in Westminster is that Rishi Sunak will call the next election in the Spring rather than next Winter. He thinks attacking climate change targets, curbs on vehicular emissions, and made up policies offers the Tories an opportunity, and one that won't be open forever. Starmer's office are of the same opinion, and so this is likely the last conference before polls open. Labour has to present itself not as an opposition debating what it wants to do, but as a government-in-waiting with a clear, business-like agenda that's ready to go. Democracy is amateur hour stuff. Conference is an opportunity to play up to the cameras and put a serious foot forward.

Taken together, this still doesn't entirely satisfy. We have to take into account the character of the Labour Party itself. It is the party of the workers, expressed institutionally by its trade union links and dependence on them for finance. But it's also a career ladder for aspirant members of the professional managerial class, as well as the favoured party of state bureaucrats. A section of British capital has, from the party's formation, always favoured it over Labour's Conservative and Liberal rivals and have worked to influence and accommodate it to their interests. In office in swathes of local and regional government, and occasional occupants of 10 Downing Street the party is to all intents and purposes part of the British state. It's a site of political contestation, an institution in whose bowels the class struggle plays out, and - historically speaking - capital's B Team when the Tories have exhausted themselves. Like now.

From the standpoint of the establishment, Labour is always a risk because its labour movement links and mass basis makes it "unreliable" in the way the Tories are not. The Corbyn surge came from nowhere and ruled Labour out of bounds for bourgeois politics for a brief time, which was also a period of severe political crisis. The right took it back and Starmer has tried his damnedest to make sure our interests are suppressed and those of capital are given free reign. This is the material root of Starmerism's authoritarianism, and that of the Labour right in general. Ruling the party with a rod of iron, intimidating, threatening, and expelling left wing MPs, councillors, and members, and turning conference into a showcase serves one purpose. To show capital and the establishment that the party is sensible, accepts their rules of the game, and that never will it succumb to the left again. Some - most - will happily accept that. But others, the most class conscious ones are going to stick with the Tories because they understand that as long as the party straddles the class divide there's a chance, however remote it might seem, that the terrifying spectre of socialism could come screeching back. And no amount of bully boy behaviour and anti-democratic thuggery will persuade them otherwise.

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