Friday 31 May 2024

Local Council By-Elections May 2024

This month saw 180,062 votes cast in 74 local authority contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Eight council seats changed hands. For comparison with April's results, see here.

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Apr
+/- May 23
Lib Dem

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There were no by-elections in Wales
*** There were four Independent clashes
**** Others this month consisted of Heritage (36), Liberal (22), Party of Women (42), Peterborough First (1,307), Reform (417, 212, 128, 90, 82), Scottish Family Party (136), Socialist Alternative (86), South Devon Alliance (523), Tattenham and Preston Residents (1,318), TTIP (150), TUSC (151, 82, 48, 30, 33, 20, 19), UKIP (259, 50), Workers' Party (198, 46)

The local elections were pretty awful for the Tories. The council by-elections held on the same day? Less so. May wasn't a complete wash out for them where local contests were concerned, but the size of the absolute votes gap between them and Labour is hardly a cause for encouragement. But if anything, with only eight seats changing hands, there are no big movements in the polling numbers. The Tories have slipped a wee bit, Labour has made a modest advance, and it's rinse and repeat with the Liberal Democrats and Greens. A feeding frenzy on tender Conservative flesh just didn't happen.

That isn't to say that won't happen when the big one lands on 4th July. Between now and then there are 17 by-elections in June to look forward to, and if I'm going to venture a projection I can't imagine the results to come will differ much from what we have here.

2 May
Adur, St Mary's, Lab hold
Amber Valley, Crich and South Wingfield, Con hold
Bedford, Riverfield, LDem hold
Birmingham, Bournbrook and Selly Park, Lab hold
Bolton, Horwich North, Ind hold
Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, Canford Cliffs, Con hold
Breckland, Hermitage, Con gain from LDem
Brighton and Hove, Kemptown, Lab hold
Brighton and Hove, Queen's Park, Lab hold
Bromley, Shortlands and Park Langley, Con hold
Broxtowe. Attenborough and Chilwell East, Lab hold
Camden, Frognal, Con hold
Charnwood, Loughborough East, Lab hold
Cheshire West and Chester, Wolverham, Lab hold
Colchester, Greenstead, Lab hold
Croydon, Park Hill and Whitgift, Con hold
Croydon, Woodside, Lab hold
Durham, Horden, Lab hold
East Devon, Exmouth Brixington, Con hold
Essex, Harlow South East, Con hold
Gosport, Lee West, Con hold x2
Hackney, De Beauvoir, Lab hold
Hackney, Hoxton East and Shoreditch, Lab hold
Hampshire, Fareham Sarisbury, Con hold
Hampshire, Meon Valley, Grn gain from Con
Hart, Fleet East, LDem hold
Hillingdon, Hillingdon East, Con hold
Hounslow, Brentford West, Lab hold
Huntingdonshire, Great Paxton, LDem gain from Con
Ipswich, Priory Heath, Lab hold
Ipswich, St John's, Lab hold
Islington, Hillrise, Lab hold
Kensington and Chelsea, Norland, Con hold
Lambeth, Knight's Hill, Lab hold
Lambeth, Streatham Common and Vale, Lab hold
Lancaster, Carnforth and Millhead, Lab hold
Leicestershire, Burbage, LDem gain from Con
Lewisham, Deptford, Lab hold
Lincolnshire, Park, Lab hold
Manchester, Didsbury East, Lab hold
Mid Suffolk, Chilton, Grn hold
Mole Valley, Capel, Leigh, Newdigate & Charlwood, LDem hold
Newcastle upon Tyne, Fawdon and West Gosforth, LDem hold
North West Leicestershire, Snibston South, Lab hold
Oxford, Blackbird Leys, Lab hold
Peterborough, Werrington, Oth hold
Reigate and Banstead, Tattenham Corner and Preston, Oth hold
Runnymede, Woodham and Rowtown, Con hold
St Albans, Batchwood, LDem hold
St Albans, London Colney, Lab gain from LDem
St Albans, Sandridge and Wheathampstead, LDem hold
Salford, Ordsall, Lab gain from LDem
Sheffield, Firth Park, Lab hold
Somerset, Mendip South, LDem hold
South Derbyshire, Melbourne, Con hold
South Gloucestershire, New Cheltenham, Lab hold
South Norfolk, Bunwell, Grn gain from Con
Stoke-on-Trent, Meir North, Lab hold
Sutton, St Helier West, Con gain from Lab
Swindon, Wroughton and Wichelstowe, Con hold
Teignbridge, Ashburton and Buckfastleigh, LDem hold
Torridge, Bideford North, LDem gain from Grn
Wakefield, Normanton, Lab hold
Wandsworth, West Putney, Con gain from Lab
Warwick, Leamington Clarendon, Lab hold
Waverley, Witley and Milford, LDem hold
West Devon, Tavistock North, LDem hold
West Lancashire, Tarleton Village, Con hold
Westmorland and Furness, Grange and Cartmel, LDem hold
Woking, Hoe Valley, LDem hold
Worcestershire, Evesham North West, Con hold

9 May
North Ayrshire, Kilwinning, Lab gain from Con

23 May
Melton, Wymondham, Con hold

30 May
Birmingham, Kingstanding, Con hold

Image Credit

Thursday 30 May 2024

Where Now for the Left?

I've got a few things to say about what's happened in the Labour Party over the last couple of days, and will get them down in black and white some point tomorrow.

In the mean time, here's some sensible suggestions from James Schneider about how the left should position itself over the next few years. As Alex notes, most of this was recorded before Rishi Sunak called the general election. But it remains valid. Or, to coin a phrase, nothing has changed ...

Monday 27 May 2024

"Sleepy Keir"

After another uninspiring Keir Starmer speech for the party faithful today, the same weird question was asked twice by right wing news outlets. Starmer was invited to comment on "reports" that he was "weary" and "sleepy" and might not be up to electioneering. As someone who spends more time than is healthy following the ins and outs of mainstream politics discourse, where on earth was this coming from? For his part Starmer - rightly - laughed off the claims. There has never been any suggestion that among the rumours that swirl about his person that laziness is one of his vices. Looking into it a bit further, these "suggestions" are talking points put forward by unnamed Conservatives. In other words, they are baseless. Baseless, but not pointless.

This is a straight import from the United States. Or, to be more accurate, a lift from the Donald Trump playbook. While scurrilous his charge of "sleepy Joe" jibe has a certain truthiness considering the frailty and occasional attacks of bewilderment that afflict Joe Biden. Though Trump has to be careful, considering he often exhibits evidence of cognitive decline. But in the British context, it's a crudity designed to contrast old man Starmer (61) to an energetic and youthful Rishi Sunak (44). It's pathetic stuff that's unlikely to shift the dial. Especially then the Tories are lighting the touch paper to their own meagre chances.

You can see how this is going to work. At every Starmer presser a Tory hack is going to ask the question. The number of times it's asked will power a right wing "people keep asking" round of talking points, that fuel further questions. The hope is that Starmer will explode in exasperation, or minions from the likes of GB News will find themselves barred from future events. This would occasion a cycle of "woe me the victim" bellyaching that right wing politicians and journalists distinguish themselves in.

The 2019 election was appalling for all kinds of reasons. Horrendous attacks from across the broadcast and print media. Dishonest attacks from the Tories and from inside the party itself. But this time, with a heavy defeat certain and the press largely on Labour's side, one can only expect Tory attacks on Starmer and the shadow front bench to get worse, more desperate and, consequently, more deranged and absurd. And to think we're only one week into the campaign.

Image Credit

Sunday 26 May 2024

The Tories' National Service Stunt

An election is called, ambushing everyone, including the governing party. The first few days of the campaign have been lacklustre to disastrous, and there is a polling mountain to clime of between 17 and 25 points, depending on which survey you pay attention to. If you were the incumbent Prime Minister in this position, how to turn this desperate situation around? For Rishi Sunak, promising the return of compulsory national service for 18 year olds.

According to James Cleverly speaking on Laura Kuenssberg, this idea is about getting young people "out of their bubble" and forcing them to mix with others from a range of backgrounds. The important bit, he said, was the "societal coming together". He talks about "fragmentation" and "detachment", and argues it's an "investment in young people" that might "pump-prime lifelong volunteering". 30,000 18 year olds will go into the military, with the rest doing the equivalent of 25 days in a variety of "voluntary" schemes. Such as food banks, helping the homeless, and clearing up the other social costs left by a long-standing Conservative government. This is to be funded by a mix of a crackdown on tax avoidance and raids upon the Shared Prosperity Fund, the Johnson-era levelling up scheme.

Contrary to Cleverly's claims, apart from the principles of liberty and freedom at stake there is no need for national service. For all of the Tories' concerns with anomie and youngsters not fitting in, the most recently available ONS figures showed 29% of 18-24 year olds already volunteer. In the first quarter of this year, 58.4% of 18-24 year olds were employed, which does not include those in full-time education. Furthermore, one in five 11-18 year olds are young carers. And, if anything, the rising generation are the most pro-social generation ever. The Tories know this, of course. Cleverly's arguments are made off vibes peddled by Telegraph and Mail scare stories, which in themselves bear zero scrutiny. Unsurprisingly, the party of fundamental dishonesty has hitched its wagon to a policy whose assumptions are fundamentally dishonest.

For once, the press pack have called Sunak's wheeze right. As polling shows, the further one is from the age of 18 the more enthusiastic the voter. With the forecast election result pregnant with the Tories' existential doom, cohering the core vote over chasing fair weather supporters is no optional extra. Another reason why a post-election right wing turn is more than likely. But also, that support is menaced by Reform. That Nigel Farage has ruled out standing for the "party" so he can spend more time grifting on the American lecture circuit is one positive to an otherwise gloomy campaign start, but the danger Reform could take hundreds of thousands of votes in marginal seats at the Tories' expense is well understood. Sunak is betting that national service tickles the fancy of Reform-curious voters in all sorts of ways. It plays to insufferable nostalgia for a time they never lived through, appeals to this layer's authoritarian instincts and fears of the new, and there's a vicarious thrill to be had from forcing pampered young people to do something they'd hate doing.

This idea of a national service "for the modern age" has floated around the Tory ether for a while, in both its voluntary and compulsory forms. But sadly for Sunak, quite apart from the practicality quibbles (how are young people going to be sanctioned if they refuse? Are they going to get banged up?), the idea this could win votes doesn't hold much water. For every elderly voter won back from Reform or abstention, they are helping mobilise a greater anti-Tory feeling among young people themselves. While today's 18 year olds won't be undertaking the scheme (the government talks hazily about it being up and running by the end of the decade), they will feel it's an attack on them, encourage them to turn out, and to vote accordingly. For some it might prove to be a radicalising moment, a realisation that the powers that be want even more from them without offering anything in return. And then there are the parents, who are unlikely to be supportive. National service is a cynical stunt and one that might prove counterproductive.

Not that any of this matters. The promised return of national service has no chance of seeing the light of day under the Tories, seeing as oblivion awaits. But, despite mockery from sundry Labour MPs on social media and the Sunday politics shows, the leadership's response has been to attack the funding rather than the principle of the scheme. Either this implies they see merit in the Tories' arguments, which wouldn't surprise anyone, or once again they don't want to challenge the prejudices of the core Tory vote they're immolating their base for to win over. Is there no political argument Keir Starmer and co. won't run away from?

Either way, Labour will be very happy without this announcement. If the Tories are doing all the leg work to give good reasons to not vote for them, the less pressure there is on Starmer to offer anything positive.

Image Credit

Saturday 25 May 2024

Ammara - Dreaming

I suppose the early 90s eurodance revival was inevitable sooner or later.

Thursday 23 May 2024

Future Blues, or Houellebecq's Submission

A general election on 4th July, you say? Sa it happens I'll be talking about the Conservatives on that date. Instead of hitting the streets to remind "the vote" to turn out, Liverpool is where I will be. My reasons for being there is because of the Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference, and in particular the paper below. If you're in the area and fancy a break from campaigning, come along!

Future Blues: Uncovering the Rules for Conservative Mundane SF

The publication of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission in French in 2015 attracted press criticism that drew attention to its critique of Islam, its nihilism, and depiction of women. Subsequent scholarship has meditated on these themes, as well as mapping how its critical reception was overdetermined by political partisanship (Ågerup 2019). Rather than debating its contested interpretation and nuances, Houellebecq’s novel can be read as an articulation of the rules of conservative polemic through the evocation of tropes common to right wing establishment political commentary. This paper specifies these rules by comparing the novel to mundane SF vignettes occasionally employed by Conservative Party supporting newspapers in the UK to ideologically cohere their readers in advance of important elections. These typically depict what grim future awaits the country if Labour are elected to office. This paper argues that while Submission is far from a crude propaganda piece, it shares certain assumptions about the way of the world with the column inches commissioned to outrage and frighten conservative-leaning audiences.

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Wednesday 22 May 2024

Why Has Rishi Sunak Called an Election?

The day began with a peculiar news story. Enough to get the antennae of conspiracy theorists twitching, Oliver Dowden told the country to stock up in case of catastrophe. Or was it a message to Tory MPs and their support staff, knowing most will be out of a job from 5th July? Being prepared is a message Rishi Sunak should have taken on board as well. Defying weather forecasts and the evidence of his own senses, the Prime Minister eschewed the expensive Downing Street press room to stand in the rain, knowing his words would likely be drowned out by protestors. It was not the most auspicious of beginnings to an election campaign that spells doom for the Tories.

The announcement did catch the lobby on the hop. That was until the rumours started swirling this morning. Since the miserable showing in the locals and mayorals, it seemed Sunak, like Boris Johnson, was going to cling on for dear life in the hope that something might turn up. So why he change of mind? Whatever you think of Theresa May and Johnson, they had a plausible argument for going to the polls. The former argued she needed a healthy majority to deal with the job at hand. The latter was to break the Brexit logjam. Sunak doesn't have anywhere near as compelling a story. In his tediously overlong speech, he said inflation was back to normal levels and economic recovery was underway. There are some global dangers too, which is why we need a Conservative government at the helm. Not terribly convincing even for Tories, if the comments on Conservative Home are typical.

We've had the good reason, so what's the real reason? Snaking its way down the grapevine, it's because the Tories are in a poor state and it can only get worse. With two recent defections, chances are more pain was in store as other Tories fancied an afterlife as either a Labour MP or some very important hanger on. Not great for morale. More Channel boats and Rwanda frustrations couldn't be ruled out, nor could the possibility of Tory support sinking further. Still, there are those in the Tory camp who were counselling as late as Wednesday morning that going for a Summer election was a mistake. Yes, the argument went, things are definitely bad now but they might be a touch better come November. When the priority has to be salvaging as much as the party as possible, fortune favours the cautious, not the foolhardy. As such, The Spectator are now running an article called A summer election is suicide for the Tories. It couldn't happen to a nicer party.

There was an event earlier this week that was widely reported pointing to the essential context of going for an election now. True to form, its significance was passed over by the country's professional politics understanderers. Senior Tories forced Sunak to back down on his immigration plans. By counting overseas students as immigrants and then introducing restrictive visa requirements, he and the right of the party were hoping to demonstrate the toughness and efficacy of the Tories at driving the numbers down. This with the happy by-product of plunging universities into financial crisis and with it (hopefully) cutting students who graduate into a life-long habit of voting liberal-left. Unfortunately for Sunak, not only does the HE sector carry weight in terms of votes, the economies servicing universities - particularly the large amount of propertied capital tied up in student lets, residence schemes, and expanding/replacing HE estate - is a core component of the Tory class coalition. The rebellion in the Cabinet was the assertion of interests over a party that was in danger of again becoming disarticulated from them in pursuit of policy gimmicks. A smaller scale version of the disaster that Liz Truss brought on herself.

On top of this, how the mega rich are deserting the Tories and are now in bed with Labour cannot have escaped Sunak's notice. He knows the paralysis of his government, the harms done to Britain's soft power, the decrepitude of the state, its growing inability to discipline the workforce, its reckless approach to so-called business confidence (I.e. providing British capital a stable enough regulatory regime for accumulation), and complete lack of popular legitimacy in and of itself is a barrier to the smooth running of things. His own eyes, the reports of donations pouring into Labour, the feedback channelled to him from those Tories on the London restaurant/dinner party/City canapé circuit, and his own class interests as the country's richest politician set on forging an alliance between daddy-in-law's Indian IT business and the Californian tech bros are the economics concentrated in his political decision making. Sunak's bowing to inevitable defeat is because the pressure of settled bourgeois interest is against him, and doing so now means he personally can look forward to a soft landing. The same cannot be said for his party, as it drops from a great height onto the rocks of a hard political reckoning.

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Pornography and Partial Subjectivity in Crash

Stating Crash is a pornographic novel is not to court controversy. The gratuity of bodies smashed, gouged, and maimed by car crashes, the ick factor of fusing the violence and sexuality of the wreck is simultaneously the book's appeal and the prophylactic that occasions its notoriety. What attracts many to Crash is what turns off the less prepared reader and shews them away from Ballard's other, more conventional litfic and science fiction. What Ballard accomplishes in Crash is a distillation of the pornographic gaze in extremis. Unlike porn proper, which leaves nothing to the imagination but is supposed to, as a psychologist puts it, achieve an "instantaneous stirring of the genitals", the wanton prose of Crash disassociates sex from arousal and accomplishes an evacuation of all erotic content. What, in other contexts, would be considered hot is cold and bleak. The narrator, one James Ballard, documents his entry into the underground fetishism of cars and sex following a fatal accident. There are bangs, and there are bangs. Human bodies or car bodies, there's no distinction between seminal fluid and oil. Warped radiators and broken glass are intimate discards as much as empty condom packets. Scars and injuries are prized reminders of past explosive entanglements between cars. But it's all described matter of factly. There's nothing lecherous or leering. The explicit is rendered without a desire to titillate. And as Crash's conceit is supposed to be fetishistic, there's no notion of joy, feeling, pleasure, satisfaction, or even desire on show. Cars and sex chase each other around London's motorways, but seemingly without an end.

In Signs and Machines, Lazzarato dissects capitalism's reliance on partial subjectivities and the reflex actions of machinic enslavement. I.e. The direction of social behaviour through command and response to signals, as if each of us are cogs and switches in a vast machine. To understand power and exploitation we must relinquish philosophies of the subject and attune our theoretical tools to the unthought/barely acknowledged, and the constitution of the relations that operate below subjectivity's radar. Something he praises Foucault, Deleuze, and particularly Guattari for for doing a lot of the intellectual heavy lifting. As it happens, Lazzarato uses driving as an example of one of these partial subjectivities. He talks about how it is a learned competence, but how for most driving to work or driving into town is a semi-conscious performance. The driver melds with the car, adopts a practical sense for navigating the roads and, more often than not, the journey evaporates from memory no sooner it is completed. Being alert as one pilots through one way systems and chooses appropriate traffic lanes is a semi-subjective state almost akin to reflex. The mind is often elsewhere, focused on what's blaring out of the speakers, engrossed in chatting with passengers, or day dreaming about tea time. Likewise at work, discipline and control has dulled us to the point where subjectivity is actively demobilised. We are relays and switches in the machine. Subjectivity only comes into play when something has gone wrong, or we are called upon to design new circuits to enable the signals to flow more smoothly.

Ballard captures the experience of a fused partial subjectivity by bringing together the mechanical body - the car - with the fleshy body's sexual mechanics. Bataille's writing on eroticism was fascinated by the dissolution of subjectivity in sex and the orgasm and, of course, Marx's diagnosis of alienation argued that capitalism meant we only found our humanity in our animal functions - eating, sleeping, and procreating. Crashing together the two partialities creates a new mangled subjectivity or way of being. This is far removed from the 'man' whose death Foucault declaimed, and is something else. The sex in car wrecks is joyless, but so is the desire to court serious injury and death at the intersection. All there is is unfathomable obsession, which is condensed in the figure of Vaughan. A former TV scientist off the nation's screens since his own crash, he has gone from rounded public intellectual - the epitome of 'man' - to a condensation of the one-dimensional. He habitually turns up at smash scenes with his cameras, pores over the images, and obsesses over his goal: a fatal collision with Elizabeth Taylor's Limousine. He has a death drive for a death drive, and the novel begins with this end: the mangled body of Vaughan pinned in the wreckage of a kamikaze launch from a flyover.

The perversity of Crash is not so much the shock of improbably extreme sex between improbably extreme people, or the eroticisation of serious injury or death, but in truthiness. Ballard's imagined community of fetishists cuts up door panels and human limbs to assert the materiality of mutability. Car parts and body parts are thrown together, rammed in an ugly metaphor of the possibilities and becomings technological augmentations have opened to us. And all of these surpass the 'man' of Western philosophy, whose obsolescence is unceremoniously hurled through the windscreen.

Monday 20 May 2024

Rewriting History

With the announcement by the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor to pursue arrest warrants against Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli defence minister Yoav Gallant, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, and leading members Ismail Haniyeh and Mohammed al-Masri, in this country the spotlight is thrown once again on the united front the British establishment formed with Israel as the butchery got underway. In particular, what Keir Starmer said when the indiscriminate slaughter began.

In a now notorious interview with LBC's Nick Ferrari on 11th October, asked about Gaza he condemned Hamas, stated his support for Israel's right to defend "herself", and do whatever it takes to get the hostages back. Responding, Ferrari asked if a "... siege is appropriate? Cutting off power? Cutting off water?" And then came the reply: "I think Israel does have that right." Stated baldly in black on white text, this looks what it is: an endorsement of war crimes. But pay attention to his countenance in the footage. Coming off what was a well received conference speech the day before, instead of emoting confidence Starmer was hesitant and slow, weighing every single word and seemingly terrified of saying the wrong thing. Indeed, if one wants to be generous this stilted, worried Starmer misspoke.

Okay, it happens. Mangling one's words and saying the wrong thing is an every day occurrence if your job involves a lot of talking. However, supposing Starmer did stumble, he was quite happy to let the impression that he supported Israel's war on Palestinian civilians continue. There is, for example, Emily Thornberry - the shadow attorney general - endorsing what Starmer said in her own mealy-mouthed way. And David Lammy, before his 'progressive realism' guff, defending the siege. Indeed, this was the line until Labour could no longer ignore the the corrosive effect it was having on its core support. And then the line changed. It went from supporting war crimes to not only not supporting them, but denying they were ever given the shadow cabinet's backing in the first place. History has been rewritten, and whenever it's raised - as it was recently by Grace Blakeley on Question Time - recalling Starmer's remarks are met with a flat denial.

We know Starmer lies. And his readiness to tell porkies comes from a place of political frailty. Ferrari's gentle probing of Labour's position on Gaza saw the Labour leader almost come apart as he uncertainly made policy on the hoof. One that had nothing to do with principle or even his own personal convictions. It was the one that would keep the press, the government, and the increasingly unhinged Israel lobby off his back. This zone of establishment non-punishment has been occupied by Labour ever since, though the position has evolved from supporting attacks on civilians to being wholeheartedly and very genuinely concerned about the danger of famine and attacks on women on children. Though not enough to support stopping weapons shipments to Tel Aviv. It's no different when it comes to greeting the news of the mooted ICC prosecution. The government says it's a "mistake", while Labour say they respect the court's neutrality. It has nothing of substance to say.

What this tawdry episode says about Starmer in power is his will be a government forever chasing its tail whenever there's some awkward press criticism, or a minister gets found out for dodgy donations, or they come under lobbying pressure from moneyed interests. Last week, the Labour leader's pledge card promised economic stability. But even with a huge majority within reach, it would be rash to expect political stability.

Sunday 19 May 2024

What a Card

In the not-at-all-expected announcement that he was throwing his hat in the ring for Islington North, Paul Mason said something that rings true about the state of British politics. He argued the incoming Labour government has one chance to restore popular support in British politics by delivering on its programme. A point that was also echoed by Andrew Marr and has become an occasion for fretting among Keir Starmer's base in the state and among professional/managerial layers. On the one hand, Starmer expends a lot of energy about how things are going to change, but actual promises to do anything are thin on the ground. Labour is producing a set of contradictory vibes, with the result that expectations of what a Starmer government will do are south of rock bottom.

But there is an answer! The very clever strategy people in the leader's office were able to hog political coverage going into the weekend with a Blairite retread: the pledge card. As my wallet is a strange attractor for all the loyalty cards and bits of ID, I happen to have my 1997 original. Comes in handy for infiltrating Labour To Win meetings. These pledges were designed as quick policy wins to show Blair and Brown meant business. There was the punishment of the privatised utilities with the windfall tax. But New Labour meant changed Labour, so we also had "fast-track punishment for persistent young offenders" and "set tough rules for government spending and borrowing".

Starmer's leadership has never pretended originality, and so the resemblance between the 1997 and 2024 cards are more than coincidental. Our new fangled version, with its 'cut NHS waiting times' and 'crack down on anti-social behaviour' are straightforward lifts. The mix of the Milquetoast progressive with the authoritarian and the reactionary continues with 'set up Great British Energy' (which is always mis-sold as a publicly-owned company, when in fact it's a Blairesque Public Private Partnership investment vehicle), and 'Launch a new Border Security Command'. I wonder how many Tory-voting focus groups that went through. And, top and tail, 'economic stability' and 'recruit 6,500 new teachers'. How the leadership managed something less inspiring than Blair's 'New Life for Britain' is a real achievement.

Despite the obvious resemblances the real inspiration for these six pledges is ... Rishi Sunak. At the beginning of 2023, he set out his five promises for government. In case you have forgot, these were halve inflation, grow the economy, get the national debt falling, reduce NHS waiting lists, and stop the boats. An incredibly low effort list of priorities that barely required Sunak to do anything. Taking on board the then economic outlook, falling inflation, GDP growth, and keep tight rein on public spending so debt could fall (as a proportion of GDP) were easy because they would happen spontaneously. NHS waiting lists were a bit of a hostage to fortune, because no Tory government has exited office with waiting times lower than the one it inherited. Sunak might have met this pledge had he decided not to underfund it. And stopping the boats was pure amateurism in the sense he signed himself up to something he couldn't deliver. Hence the grim theatrics of the Rwanda scheme.

Because big brains are in charge of Labour, nothing has been left to chance. Border Security Command, Great British Energy, and anti-social behaviour policies can be brought into being at a stroke of a pen. Economic stability is also relatively easy seeing as Rachel Reeves, when she's not busy plagiarising other people's work, has no ideas of her own and will leave the regulatory frameworks intact and won't haphazardly chop and change the rules like the Tories do. NHS waiting lists are likely to start coming down at the point Labour enters government just as we're over the worst of the seasonal hospital admissions - and this before Wes Streeting's plan to use imaginary spare private capacity. And lastly, 6,500 new teachers works out at increasing recruitment by about 1%. Starmer's government would have to be spectacularly incompetent to not meet any of these aims.

The new pledge card is not the programme for the incoming government, and should not be judged as such. But by setting a low bar in what the Labour leadership takes to be the public imaginary, they can easily exceed their own expectations. On teachers and teaching, where the big challenge is the triple threat of underfunding, workload, and retention, anything on top of the extra teachers' pledge tick the under-promising and over-delivering box. On GBE and BFC, setting them up and branding them provides an illusion of forward motion. And on it goes. Starmer will be able to say his project of authoritarian modernisation, or mission-driven government as he styles it, is well underway.

The problem with this is the assumption the public aren't paying attention and can't smell bullshit. Just as talking about hope a lot does not call it out of the ether, most people won't notice a Labour government unless it materially improves people's lives and is experienced as such. Being able to get doctors' and dentists' appointments, seeing wages consistently rise faster than prices, experiencing the green transition in the form of lower energy bills, these are ways Labour could and should make a difference. And Starmer would be rewarded for enabling this with more future general election victories. But the actual chances for that are very slim. Why? Because of the alliances he's actively pursued with the right aligns him and his project with the interests arrayed against the people - the overwhelming majority - who would benefit a progressive prospectus.

Wednesday 15 May 2024

The Stupidity of Jacob Rees-Mogg

The Conservatives are known colloquially as the stupid party, so that its leading lights should utter stupidities is a given. The latest issuing from the lips of Jacob Rees-Mogg was about how the Conservatives might possibly win the next general election. Speaking on GB News, he pulled the old trick of taking recent polling and adding together the Tory and Reform showings. Not only would such a reunited right be a viable political vehicle, if it could draw in Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson it would stand a chance of beating Labour. Especially if it pledged to attack environmental protections, was determined to roll back equalities legislation, and went hard on immigration.

There are a few things that makes this a non-starter, quite apart from the fact that neither Johnson nor Farage could tolerate playing second fiddle to the other. The first is the massive vote winning programme Rees-Mogg proffers is ... exactly the programme the Conservatives have now. To the right's wonky antennae, Rishi Sunak gives off the vibe of being a centrist, but this argument is complete drivel. The Rwanda scheme is more his than it ever was Priti Patel's and Johnson's. He's done more to attack equalities and set trans people up as folk devils than any of his predecessors. And you would be hard pressed to find any Tory leader more slavish to fossil fuel interests and as openly contemptuous at cleaning up the air in British cities. Rees-Mogg and those fool enough to listen might counter that Sunak isn't really a believer, but it doesn't matter. Those about to attack a trans man in a toilet won't care whether Sunak's contribution to the discourse of dehumanisation comes from a place of "genuine concern" or cynicism. Oil company executives won't be fretting that their North Sea drilling permissions don't rest on the Prime Minister's acceptance of climate change denialism. And Rwanda's Paul Kagane will carry on taking UK government money and not a single asylum seeker without caring about Sunak's real beliefs.

And then there is the electoral arithmetic, which is almost as foolish as the nonsense commentary that regularly afflicts by-elections. Rees-Mogg is moving the electorate around as if they're draughts on a board. Queening the Tories with Reform does not make for a powerful piece greater than the sum of its parts. A party's support is not a solid, manipulable mass, as we're seeing with Keir Starmer's gallop to the right and the subsequent surge for the Greens and others. Likewise with the Tories and Reform. If they united, some Tory voters would be put off by the crudities of Farage, Lee Anderson, etc. And for Reform, some of its base are quite prepared to support them because they're not the Tories. Anyone who has analysed the 2019 election and how the Brexit Party made a difference in many hitherto Labour-held seats knows that there were enough (mainly older) Labour voters turning to them to protest their party's referendum positioning. This was because, despite everything, even then they couldn't stomach voting Tory. Electorally speaking, a Tory/Reform lash up with souped-up right wing characteristics would be even less attractive to the pool of people each party has around them now. Far from rescuing the situation, chances are it would compound the Tories' woes.

I can understand where Rees-Mogg is coming from. His perception of possible salvation for his party does, superficially, have something to recommend it. Squinting your eyes and ignoring a lot of things, you could argue Johnson triumphed in 2019 on a platform not dissimilar to the one that excites the stunted imaginations of sundry Tory backbenchers. But what makes Rees-Mogg stupid is his wilful substitution of fantasies for reality. And that's the one he lives in now: where the Tories face oblivion, it's too late to do anything about it, and that his own career in North East Somerset will likely be snuffed out by a triumphant Labour candidate.

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Monday 13 May 2024

Sunak's Feeble Fear Factor

When the Conservatives have nowhere to go, when opportunists and the hardest of the hard right are fleeing the sinking ship, and nothing can turn around the party's fortunes, what is a Tory leader to do? With Rishi Sunak and his speech at the opaquely-funded Policy Exchange think tank on Monday we have an answer: do what all Tory leaders in a similar position have done and ramp up the fear factor. But this one was slightly different. Rather than reflecting on one or two big bogeymen, Sunak went the full monty and cited every existential threat and fear his speech writer could think of.

Sunak warned that we're living in dangerous times, and that the next five years could be more impactful than the last 30. Yes, more change than the Rwandan genocide, September 11th terror attacks, the stock market crash, austerity, Brexit, Trump, the rise of China, social media, and Covid put together. Blimey, even without specifying anything that promise alone is enough to make the average Tory dizzy. Sunak then tucked in, throwing out mortal threats as if morsels from a banquet of doom. There was war ("18 conflicts in Africa", "Iranian proxies"), there's Putin and China (gas supplies! Russia using migration as a weapon!), and an axis of authoritarian states threatening our country. Alongside economic shocks and energy shocks, the enemies without are aided by the enemies within. We have "people abusing liberal democratic values", evil "gender activists hijacking children's education", and extremists determined to turn Briton against Briton. We must beware the dangers of technology too. Kids are exposed to sexualised content online, and artificial intelligence presents unknown risks unless it is managed properly. Sunak provided the assembled press pack with a Who's Who of right wing fears and anxieties, underlined by the fact the most threatening of them all - climate change - was conspicuous by its absence.

Sunak tempered this with a touch of optimism. He noted that the greatest life-transforming breakthroughs often happen at moments of greatest danger, and so we had rhapsodies about the far reaching consequences of AI (he still wants that tech bro job). Brexit's dubious "freedoms" were talked up, as were export figures and Britain's reputation as a world leader in innovation. He went on with more pig iron production figures, and how fantastic the Tories were in completing the last five year plan in four years. Or some such rubbish. By the end he was pleading with his audience that you can't judge the last 14 years by 49 days of madness.

What was the purpose of this? To draw a sharp contrast between the sensiblism of the Conservatives and the danger of Labour. They've "had 14 years to come up with some new ideas", but there aren't any. Keir Starmer will say and so anything to get into office, and if he does the "tough decisions" will get ducked and the country pitched into great danger. Several members of the shadow cabinet voted against nuclear weapons, and they want to abandon the Rwanda scheme which, acting as a deterrent, will save thousands of lives. Starmer and friends act more like a pressure group than a government-in-waiting. And on Sunak went, encouraged by the friendly press pack who invited the Prime Minister to elaborate his attacks on Labour further.

It is pretty desperate. Apart from the most unhinged sections of our rulers (such as the Telegraph, who are convinced Starmer's about to bring back the militant trade unionism of the 1970s), British capital in general are pretty chill about what Labour are offering. Rachel Reeves's promises to not spend anything, Wes Streeting's message that the NHS (and by extension, the state) will be offering profitable opportunities underwritten by government money, and more recently the dilution of an already watered down set of promises on workers' rights are winning over the big money backers. Now that the Tories are out for the count, capital has entered into its episodic partnership with the so-called party of labour seeing as their usual client party are no longer a viable conduit for their interests.

But for Sunak, he and all the Tory strategists know that fear is what pump primes their base. They're hoping the name-checking of all the existential threats will wake the base up so it stops flirting with Reform and unite behind the Tories to stop the coming electoral defeat from being a historic cataclysm. Unfortunately for him, no matter how blood-curdling the warnings, the Tories under his watch have done such a great job of dissociating themselves from the aspirations and interests of the electorate at large, from its support among the professional/managerial base to the Tory-leaning sections of the middle class and working class, the petit bourgeoisie, and even big business, no amount of the tried and trusted doom mongering will save them. Especially when what these layers fear the most is not Starmer, but another four or five years of "their" party in charge.

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