Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Against Political Fairy Tales

Have you seen the latest Ipsos Mori poll? It's grim. The Tories have an 18 point lead over Labour. The last YouGov from a week ago is also pretty depressing. There, Theresa May's clueless Conservatives were on 42% while Labour limps in on 28%. Not good.

What also isn't good is the coincident circulation of this. It got wide traction a week ago, and found itself bandied about again, as if in some way it invalidates the polls above.

A story. When I was tucked away in Stoke-on-Trent Central's constituency office, I remember an email from an opponent to equal marriage. The author, who regularly sent in evangelical Christian missives, urged the boss to vote against the bill went it came before the Commons. She claimed there was a majority against because a 600,000 signature position (or thereabouts) had got handed in. The polls showing consistent support for a change in the law were wrong because they were based on asking much smaller numbers of people.

Exactly the same logic is on display above. Because some 9,500 participated in Cllr Ben Walker's poll, that means it's more valid than anything our professional pollsters put out. And, oh look, the originator is a Tory councillor so the 60% rating for Labour can't be wrong.

If you're someone who fell for this, this is why you shouldn't. Polling isn't an exact science (in fact, it's not even a science), and they nearly all got the general election and EU referendum results wrong. Wrong, but close. This was because the sample sizes they worked with were weighted to match the voting population. If, for example, men are slightly more likely to vote in elections than women then those proportions will be reflected in the sample. And so on for other demographic characteristics. The sample therefore is more or less a microcosm of what Britain's electorate look like.

The poll represents no one but the people who decided to take part in it. It's an elective poll, not a weighted one. And the problem in this context is it peddles a myth, a fairy tale that everything is fine and the polls are covering up Jeremy Corbyn's massive levels of support. The task is not to hide from reality. If one is truly a radical, it must be confronted.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Place of Religion in Peace and War

Last week's Sociology Research Seminar Series slot at the University of Derby addressed itself to the ambivalent role played by religion in modern wars. Given by Paul Weller, Emeritus professor and former head of the Centre for Society, Religion, and Belief, his paper, 'The Politics of Fear: Religions, Conflict, and Diplomacy' wasn't just a survey of how religion is implicated in conflict but was also a consideration of the historic role it has played in overcoming them - and what it can do in the future.

Beginning with the Cold War, as the two great power blocs confronted one another all political and cultural questions were, to greater or lesser extents, overdetermined by the stand off. As such, it asked religion which side it was on. The West was the upholder of individualism, capitalism, and styled itself as irreducibly Christian. The East was collectivist, socialist, and atheistic. Surely it would be an easy decision? From the standpoint of Eastern Europe's Stalinist monoliths, the Catholic Church was eyed with some suspicion (and, as we know from the Polish experience, they were right to be worried). Simultaneously, there were conscious efforts to rally Christianity to the banner of anti-communism. Yet there were resistances on the part of Europe's faith communities to being co-opted either way. For example, the Church of the Czech Brethren offered their own imminent critique of East and West by singling out anti-human tendencies in both systems, while declaring for neither side. There were also serious efforts at Christian/Marxist dialogues spearheaded by a number of Western Communist Parties, and the Conference of European Churches and the Christian Peace Conference worked at cross-bloc communication aiming at de-escalation.

The end of the Cold War led to a new world order, and one in which ideologues rushed in to define the new foe. In his hubristic The End of History and the Last Man, the once-notorious (and now largely forgotten) Francis Fukuyama, capitalism and liberalism were declared triumphant. Communism was gone, fascism long-dead and so we'd reached the end. There is no competitor as our way of the world had proved its superiority over all-comers. In his arrogance, Fukuyama however did note that Islamic fundamentalism presented something of a challenge, but it was one rooted by geography and could not pose as a global alternative to the West. Others were less discerning. Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations clearly located Islam as the West's new Other, a thesis that obviously gained much traction after the September 11th attacks. The establishment attitude to Muslim communities in its midst varied from country to country, but at least in the British and American context officialdom's political and security discourse differentiated between 'good' (moderate) and 'bad' (extremist) Muslims. The latter were positioned as utterly unusual because of their uncompromising religious/political positioning, desire to afflict mass civilian casualties, and utter disregard for their own lives in the commission of terrorist operations.

Moving specifically to IS, for adherents their "caliphate" is the only place it's possible to live properly Islamic lives. In their cod theology, they see themselves as a state actor setting about the work of constructing something new that could attract Muslims from all over. Therefore it and its co-thinkers in Boko Haram have temporal and territorial aims. They want to create a space that removes uncertainty and indeterminacy and forces Muslims to choose between the land of belief and the lands of unbelief. They also look toward eternity in the belief this brings on the end times: in sharpening the confrontation between IS and the West via terror attacks, the more that is being done to bring on the final battle and the coming of the Kingdom of God.

For Paul, the problem the West has is all military action does is feed their theology. Long-term, particularly here, there has to be the creation of alternative religious narratives that prioritise negotiations between Muslims and other faiths, while all the time challenging the apocalypticism underpinning IS and other species of Islamism. For example, the present bete noire of the Turkish government, Fethullah G├╝len argues that rather than opposing a liberal Islam to their fundamentalism, one needs to centre on the critical resources within the belief system and articulate an agenda of critical questioning. IS justify their atrocities according to convenient scriptural authorities, but at the same time it may contain the seeds of their demise.

Monday, 17 October 2016

UKIP After Steven Woolfe

It's been a torrid time for UKIP since the referendum in June. And not in a good way. On no less than three occasions, the cause of the purple party's discomforts have, ostensibly, centered upon the person of Steven Woolfe. There was the farce of the leadership campaign where, readers will recall, Woolfe demonstrated his lightning fast organising skills by submitting his candidate's application some 17 minutes late. Compounding this most rookie of errors were revelations he'd let his membership lapse. Oh, and that he'd forgotten to declare an ancient drink driving conviction while standing for the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Greater Manchester, leaving him open to charges of electoral fraud. Then, at the start of the month, we were entertained by the fracas between Woolfe and the aptly named Mike Hookem MEP. And now, there's this.

In quitting UKIP "with immediate effect", Woolfe is unsparing with his criticisms. There are "huge negative camps" threatening the party with "a death spiral", and members saying "horrific" things to each other. Standard for UKIP, I'd have thought. He also concludes that the party has next to no future without Nigel Farage as he's the only figure capable of keeping a lid on things. True, but even then, UKIP was plagued with infighting, splits, briefing and counter briefings, and a disproportionate number of its wastrel MEPs hauled before the courts. And there's also the suggestion the party's on the hook for 800 grand, minus a willing sugar daddy to make the shortfall good.

This latest round in UKIP's decline is something first forecast on this blog after the 2015 general election. Feeding off the historic anti-Labour sections of the working class, the lumpens, the petit bourgeoisie, and retirees, UKIP's core, if it can be called that, was always highly volatile. A coalition built around europhobia and anti-immigrant bigotry can glue such a bloc together for a time. The adhesive can be strengthened by the application of a charismatic man-of-the-people type, and for a while, it worked. While it was on the up, it appeared as if these divisions didn't matter. UKIP have shrugged off dodgy MEPs and egos as it climbed the polls, won the European elections, nicked two MPs off the Tories, netted councillors, and made the political weather. But after the general election, and post the EU referendum, the party's tendency to historic decline has accelerated. With Theresa May cornering the let's-be-beastly-to-foreigners market, UKIP is not about to repeat the glories. With or without Farage.

Which is why, ultimately, Woolfe has thrown the towel in. He deserves some credit for speaking candidly to the BBC about his injuries, but one thing he isn't is stupid. Apart from his politics, Woolfe does seem personable and usually acquits himself well on the television. Yet he hasn't got what it takes to lead UKIP's gaggle of silly, stupid, racist geese. In his presentation and personality there is nothing setting him apart from any other smooth, media trained mainstream politician. Qualities that might endear him to a nice Conservative Association somewhere, sometime, but definitely not what a so-called people's army demands. They need a Farage or, ugh, a Kilroy.

The departure of Woolfe epitomises the crisis, the cracking up of UKIP. The party is dying because it cannot replace itself. there just aren't sufficient numbers of younger activists and, crucially, voters willing to give the party time of day. Small wonder it can manage a succession properly. Looking among the personages and non-personalities of the party's leading cadre, there is not one among them capable of filling Farage's shoes. And in the politics after the referendum, it lacks purpose beyond an occasional council by-election annoyance. Woolfe's departure might be enough to save his career from the knackers yard of politics. It looks increasingly like the same can't be said for his erstwhile party.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Anti-Semitism and Labour, Again

Among Jeremy Corbyn's failings, according to The Times this morning, is the Labour Party becoming a "safe space" for anti-semites. Of course, it is not now nor has ever been a safe space for anti-semitism - as the recent expulsions testify. Yet this is the spin our increasingly partisan "paper of record" chooses to put on the release of the Home Affairs Select Committee report, Antisemitism in the UK.

On page six it says,
This report focuses to some extent on the Labour Party, because it has been the main source of recent allegations of antisemitism associated with political parties. It should be emphasised that the majority of antisemitic abuse and crime has historically been, and continues to be, committed by individuals associated with (or motivated by) far-right wing parties and political activity. Although there is little reliable or representative data on contemporary sources of antisemitism, CST figures suggest that around three-quarters of all politically-motivated antisemitic incidents come from far-right sources.
It also adds that while the other parties have their issues, it's concerning that anti-semitism should have reared its head in the party most historically associated with anti-racism and equality. What's going on?

As readers know, my view is Labour has an anti-semitism problem in so far as society at large has such a problem. It is not institutionally prejudiced and discriminatory toward Jewish people, but nor are we talking about a media invention without substance. Since Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a serious contender for the Labour leadership, the party has attracted fringe elements of the anti-war movement who explicitly identify as anti-Zionist as the flipside of being pro-Palestinian, some September 11th truth'er conspiracy theorists, and idiots for whom politics is a form of radical performance art. In addition, the heat of Labour's internal divisions has proved a useful foil for hardcore racists, among whom are those using Jeremy Corbyn as a fig leaf for their views, and trolls happy to fan the anti-semitic flames as long as it scorches the leadership and the wider party.

What I think the report gets right is critiquing the shortcomings of the Chakrabarti report which, rightly, found anti-semitism wasn't a systemic problem in the Labour Party (despite not running with an operational definition of what it actually is). And rightly it also criticises the cack handed way in which the leadership have undermined their exoneration by handing the report's author a berth in the House of Lords and now a position in the shadow cabinet. If you're going to make a deal about doing new politics, the first rule is to not look like the old politics. It is also right to criticise Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker for their childish provocations - in both case it shows an appalling lack of judgement and zero awareness about how their behaviour reflects on the party and the political current they support. Or perhaps they did know and just don't care about their responsibility to the wider movement. Of course, what the report doesn't address is the factional uses to which all of this is being put. Indeed, this morning's BBC Breakfast, Andrea Leadsom's former cheerleader-in-chief Tim Loughton was doing just that.

In the party's defence, this reply has been posted to the Labour leader's Facebook page, responding to some of its points and making a number of important criticisms of the report. But does that make the select committee publication another addition to the ledger of smears and baseless claims? If only. Yes, it's damaging to Labour, and there are interests in portraying our party as a uniquely anti-semitic outfit that is not welcome to Jewish people. Context is everything. But that doesn't mean its findings can be swept under the carpet, which seems to be the stock response of some.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Saturday Interview: Dave Allport

Dave Allport is a Labour councillor for Talke on Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council and a town councillor in Kidsgrove. Dave is also a mental health nurse and keen campaigner, and is one of the super-activists who comprise Labour's Kidsgrove mafia. You can follow Dave on Twitter here.

During the Labour leadership election, you decided to back Owen Smith. Was this an easy decision to make?

The decision was not a difficult one to make as I considered Owen Smith to be the better candidate. The fact that we were in this situation in the first place was what I found hard. I joined the Labour Party, regardless of leader. To be honest the last four leaders of the party would not have been my preferred choice. However, I am a democrat and accept all of those results. I am pleased that Jeremy Corbyn has inspired many people to engage in politics, and particularly our party. The issue I have is that we are a proud movement and have never, not even in 1997, been about one person. I am not a Blairite nor a Corbynista but a member of the Labour Party.

Why do you think Jeremy still attracts a huge following in the party, despite the well publicised criticisms and negative polling?

I think that he attracts such a huge following because, he is seen as being separate from Metropolitan elite. He has had the luxury of a safe Labour seat for 33 years and has been able to retain his ideology without challenge, and has never had to compromise because he hasn't taken on the burden of responsibility of office before. He is able to criticise and march against things as he is in opposition, so I wonder how he would be if he was in power?

If the party is to transform that enthusiasm in the party to widespread election-winning support, what do you think we have to do?

Listen to people other than those who are heaping adulation on the leader. Accept that compromise is inevitable and that power is the only way we can help improve the lives of vulnerable people.

How did you get involved in politics?

I have always been interested in politics. I grew up in the 1980’s, so was subjected to one of the most divisive British politicians ever on the news every night. I think one of the main reasons people are no longer engaged in politics is the fact that many people no longer watch the news or read a newspaper. Back in the day, we didn’t have a television in every room or tablets, laptops, etc. so we had no choice but to watch the news with our parents each night. In addition there were very distinct ideological differences between the two main parties, which almost vanished post-Thatcher, until very recently. Which is a possible explanation for popularity of Jeremy Corbyn.

Anyway, I’m digressing. I was a branch secretary of a trade union in my early 20s, although was not a member of the Labour party. In 2010, I was supposed to be finishing work at 20:30 hrs on general election day and planned to vote (for Joan Walley) on my way home from work. Unfortunately I was not able to leave on time and was unable to vote. My friend Rebecca called me a hypocrite, as I was always preaching politics. It was the following day that I joined the Labour party.

And why did you decide to become a councillor?

During the 2010 election campaign, my then neighbour and I were chatting outside one evening and were approached by the local Labour candidate for Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, Kyle Robinson. We both pledged our support. After joining the party, I was contacted by Kyle asking if I would like to become involved in Butt lane and Kidsgrove and also stand for Kidsgrove town council in 2011. Six weeks prior to the election, the candidate for Talke in NULBC elections withdrew and I was persuaded to stand. I wasn’t expected to win the seat, but we fought an effective campaign and took the seat from the LibDems. They had held it for over 20 years. So I guess I kind of fell into it.

Are there any blogs or other politics/comments websites you regularly follow?

Nothing specific, I do try to watch the news and read the papers regularly and watch political programmes.

Are you reading anything at the moment?

I am currently reading John Lydon’s second autobiography, Anger is an Energy.

Do you have a favourite novel?

Iain Banks The Wasp Factory which I have recently re-read.

Are there any works of non-fiction that has had a major influence on how you think about the world?

I have always read a lot of biographies and auto biographies. I used to be very idealistic, as most teenagers are, before becoming cynical and jaded. I now consider that I have a happy medium between the two. I have been most inspired by people who remained true to themselves. Not just the obvious ones like Martin Luther King, Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela, but people like Billie Jean King, whose achievements do not receive the recognition they deserve. She literally created women’s professional sport in an era of misogyny and paternalism. People who are able to effect social change and attitudes with dignity, whilst being true to themselves are perhaps those I find most inspiring. However there are also plenty of people who have achieved that in a very negative and destructive way. I won’t mention any of their names though.

Who are your biggest intellectual influences?

I can’t think of anyone specific person. Certain teachers and lecturers have inspired me as have artists, sportsmen, musicians and normal everyday people who have a beautiful spirit. A lady I used to work with called Jean Phillips, springs to mind. She had the most amazing aura about her.

And has there ever been an event/moment that has exercised a similar influence?

There have been many. The Miners' Strike, the end of Apartheid, 1997 election. Liverpool winning the champions league final in 2005 after being 3-0 down at half time.

How many political organisations have you been a member of?


Is there anything you particularly enjoy about political activity?

Meeting people

Can you name an idea or an issue you've changed your mind about?

The royal family ... I’m now a confirmed republican

What set of ideas do you think it most important to disseminate?

The value and potential of each of us.

What set of ideas do you think it most important to combat?

Almost everything the Daily Mail holds dear.

Do you have any political heroes?

Attlee, Gorbachev, Ghandi, Mandela, Lincoln, Kinnock

How about political villains?

Murdoch, Trump, Thatcher, Jeremy Hunt, Hitler

What do you think is the most pressing political task of the day?

Aspiration, inspiration and opportunity for young people. We cannot afford to lose another generation.

If you could affect a major policy change, what would it be?

Renationalise railways. Re-regulate public transport.

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world?

Global warming. Rising sea levels is only going to create more climate refugees.

What would be your most important piece of advice about life?

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

What is your favourite song?

Bizarre Love Triangle by New Order

Do you have a favourite video game?

I never play video games.

And what was the last film you saw?

The Naked Civil Servant

What do you consider the most important personal quality in others?

Generosity of spirit

What fault in others do you most dislike?

Gratuitous whinging

And any pet peeves?

Rudeness, Arrogance, Bigotry, Bullying, Greed

What piece of advice would you give to your much younger self?

Life will get much better for you.

What do you like doing in your spare time?

Reading, swimming, tennis, cycling, music, visiting new places, cooking, eating out, seeing friends and family.

What is your most treasured possession?

My physical and mental health

Do you have any guilty pleasures?

Oh yes

What talent would you most like to have?


If you could have one (more or less realistic) wish come true, what would you wish for?

Personal happiness

And if you were to suddenly win or inherit an enormous sum of money, would it change you and how would you spend it?

It would obviously change me in some way, although I doubt I would change significantly. I would make sure my parents were okay and look after the people who have treated me well.

If you could go for a drink with three people, past or present, who would they be?

Victoria Wood, John McEnroe, John Peel

Being a Labour councillor can be quite tough. Would you recommend it?

I would only recommend it to someone who genuinely held Labour values. I have seen too many people use the party and the position for personal gain, either financial, influence or self-importance, who couldn’t give a shit about the Labour party.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Five More Books on Marx and Marxism

By way of a sequel to this from a few years back, here are five more books about Marx and/or Marxism that use the materialist method to understand the world.

The first of these has to be Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2000). It had sat on my shelf for 16 years before I finally got round to reading it this summer, and I've kicked myself ever since. In a great working of theoretical synthesis, Hardt and Negri bring together theories of political sovereignty, political economy, Marxism, and postmodernism in an entirely convincing whole. The basic thesis is global capitalism is transitioning to an international system in which capital, or Empire as they call it, is a decentered, disembodied sovereign better able to regulate the growing capacities and objective strength of the multitude (a Spinozan concept that sort of indicates the masses, which have variously assumed the form of slaves, peasants, and proletarians) than the nation state. As an emerging, unconscious entity, the Empire is an alien power straight out of Marx's Paris Manuscripts. A surprisingly readable work that makes legible complex processes, it remains a fresh work that could fool you into thinking it was published this last year. It casts a great shadow over the next book ...

Cognitive Capitalism by Yann Moulier Boutang (2007) explores the case Hardt and Negri make on relation to the new shifts on global capitalism, particularly with regard to Negri's earlier work around the 'social worker'. i.e. The new breed of proletarian that has the production of knowledge, services, or care (in sum, social relations) as the object of their work. Boutang argues that key to the transition from the old to the new is the growing capacity of labour power. In the age of the so-called mass worker, the hegemonic form of work had people fed into companies where they would be trained and socialised into work. This was bound up with a conscious strategy pursued by big capital since the advent of Scientific Management, that subordinating labour to capital requires that the latter holds the knowledge of the production process. The emergence of 'cognitive capitalism' finds that labour power's aptitude with new technologies is something acquired outside of workplace relations, and that the coming hegemony of this work puts capital at a double disadvantage: labour power is a self-actualising and innovative force of production independent of capital. And, as such, to generate profit capital has to assume more overtly parasitic and unjust forms of surplus value extraction. Think Uber. Think Deliveroo. Labour is constantly networking and forming its own brain trust, which, for want of a better phrase, capital can only ponce off - think about how Facebook and Google feed off the data sets your online doings produce with no financial benefit to the user. This is just a condensed flavour of what's on offer, so Cognitive Capitalism comes as an essential work.

Speaking of essential, there is The Hard Road to Renewal by Stuart Hall (1988), another book I've been meaning to read for ages but only read this last week or so. What Hall does in this collection of essays from New Left Review and Marxism Today is provide a properly Marxist analysis of Thatcherism. He characterises it as a hegemonic project (albeit one that did not achieve complete hegemony) that sought to redefine politics and values across a broad front: economics, politics, and culture. He does this by analysing the British state as it declined relative to the rise of the other great powers and had to transform itself into an instrument that more directly intervened as a participant of class struggle and manager of a large population. More specifically, he picks apart the crisis of social democratic capitalist management in the 1970s and discerns the emergence of authoritarian populism, a strategy by the right to ride the wave of anti-establishment and anti-statist feeling and transform it into a buttress for the establishment. He also castigates Labour and the left repeatedly for ignoring their Gramsci and never seriously engaging in a similar kind of project: rather the former chases public opinion without trying to lead it, and the latter is fundamentalist and stuck on the defensive. Lastly, he notes that Thatcherism was never about providing solutions to capitalist crisis, even if it dressed up in those clothes. Instead, it was about tilting the balance of class forces to the right and keeping them there. As a Marxist analysis of politics and an explanation of the impasse we find ourselves in almost 30 years after publication, it too is a vital intervention everyone on the left should read.

Going back to basics a bit, I want to big up again the best introductory book on Marx and Marxism I've ever read. And that would be Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right (2011). Taking the form of a series of common objections/misconceptions about Marxism, the book provides answers. It's not a dry-as-ditchwater exercise along the lines of "this is what Marx really said". Quote-mongering is kept to a minimum and, instead, Eagleton allows the materialist method and concepts do the talking. On economics, on the salience of class, the relationship between Marxism and the "new" (though now, rather old) social movements around race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and the environment, I can't ever see its supersession by something better. It's one of those books that should have been around when I was a touch younger - its clarity would have saved a lot of time wading through useless, dusty tomes.

Lastly, I had a lot of fun with Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts by Leigh Phillips (2015). Perhaps the most "populist" of this round-up of books, Phillips makes a case for a Marxist approach to technology. i.e. That innovative new tools, ways of working, and technologies are dialectical fusions of benefit and risk, but that on the whole development has been a force for good. He is outraged and offended to find the Luddism at the heart of nearly all Green and environmentalist politics has been tailed and adopted wholesale by the left, and subjects reflex opposition to genetically modified organisms, nuclear power, and consumerism generally to the fire of polemic and brimstone of the put down. These, he argues, are manifestations of an anti-human and misanthropic approach to politics. Those who worship Gaia, favour primitivist solutions to the ecological crisis, and get all gooey over earth spirit hocus pocus offer the way back to a past in which our species were fragmented, few in number, and absolutely dependent on the blind whims of the seasons. Reactionary nonsense of the worst kind, in other words. And a fundamentally debilitating one as it talks down our powers and capacities to cope with and ameliorate the environmental problems stacking up against us. That, after all, should be the focus of radical politics.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

A Defence of Stop the War

I'm definitely not a fan of the Stop the War Coalition. It has a legion of problems, rooted in a rather reflex anti-imperialism that leaves it open to claims of soft soaping dictators, and providing cover for whosoever incurs the displeasure of the State Department and Whitehall. That said, some of the criticisms thrown at the group over the last couple of days strike me as stupid and disingenuous. Such as Boris Johnson's argument that it should be organising demonstrations outside the Russian embassy against the vile atrocities committed in Aleppo.

First things first, Stop the War was set up to oppose the war drive against Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks. Building on the organisation that came together to protest the bombing of Serbia in 1999, it put on flesh in the demonstrations leading up to and during the first phase of the Iraq War. It has also been very clear the Coalition's strategy is about building anti-war public opinion against the British government because, well, it's a Britain-based outfit. It aims to change British foreign policy by putting pressure on its democratic institutions via mass mobilisation, civil disobedience, influencing MPs, making the case against military adventurism, and so on. Furthermore, as even my cat knows, Britain is part of a web of alliances and strategic military partnerships. It has particularly close ties to the United States, and in the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Wherever these states are involved in military activity, it is usually with the tacit or practical support of the British government. The 2006 Lebanon War, the 2009 and 2014 war on Gaza, and current commission of war crimes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen incur the opposition of Stop the War because of our complicity. For Israel, UK and US companies have happily furnished them with armaments to drop on largely defenceless populations. For Saudi Arabia, not only are we providing ordinance but also "military advisors", thereby exposing British military personnel to possible war crimes charges in the future.

With a Labour Party forever divided on questions of war and peace, someone has to take up the cudgels of making the case against Britain's wars.

Oh, but what about Russia and Assad? Sure, there are tankie nostalgics in Stop the War, but backward glances of this kind are very much a minority interest. The reason why the coalition doesn't protest against Russian militarism is a political calculation: what would such actions achieve? In the first place, picketing the Russian embassy is unlikely to change the minds of the Kremlin clique. With its reputation mud in most NATO countries, the kind of actions Stop the War undertake aren't going to have an effect. Whereas, say, a big march on the Saudi Arabian embassy has the potential of giving our government pause. Second, and most obvious - too obvious for our Boris Johnsons - if Stop the War begin agitating against Putin, that contributes to the case for war. Imagine, if half a million on the streets gives a British government jitters over its support for the latest US action, then the same number protesting the bombing of an aid caravan on Aleppo's approaches might encourage them in its Syrian no fly zone idiocy. Having Stop the War co-opted for a war drive kind of defeats their purpose.

I don't particularly like Stop the War's politics, but it is what it is. Instead of griping, there is nothing stopping Boris Johnson and his Progress cheerleaders organising their own gathering in Kensington Palace Gardens if they felt so strongly about "doing something". But they won't, which makes their criticisms of Stop the War sound like hollow point-scoring.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Return of Tony Blair

You can't keep a good man down. Or, depending on preferences, a bad stench always lingers. Yes, Saint Tony has pre-announced a possible comeback. Caught between the rock of ruinous Toryism and the hardplace "ultra-leftism" of the Labour Party, His Blairness has identified a yawning gap where the centre ground should be.

We've been here many times before, including quite recently. The problem with any notion of the centre ground is it does not have a meaningful existence in the same way political values and the forces attached to them do. Blair had little time for such old hat, he took what we call in political science a spatial approach to politics. Find out where most people are on an issue, and try to be closer to that position than your opponents: that is the route to electoral success. The problem is the electorate tend to be all over the place. They might be left leaning on some things, such as the need for more housing, and are appalled at the tax dodging antics of the filthy wealthy. And right on others, like getting tough on crime and cutting immigration to nothing. The problem is one Theresa May has triangulated that territory quite successfully, if the latest abysmal poll is anything to go by.

The problem for Blair is that while he has an inkling the current political situation has something to do with the dull, authoritarian managerialism of his reign, he doesn't understand how or why. And neither do his disciples. Yes, Tone's time as PM saw a number of positives, but alongside the one huge, fat negative his approach didn't so much as challenge the neoliberal consensus as strengthen it. The subsequent erosion of the bedrock constituency Labour depends on is a direct consequence of his positioning, which means a 1997-style triangulation strategy is nigh on impossible for our party - even if it was led by a Blair-like figure. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour might be miles away from power, but it is doing the necessary spade work of sinking new foundations that will pay dividends in the long term.

The second problem with Blair is if he were to make a comeback, of leading politically he has no inkling. For all the trite talk of tough decisions, his pitch prior to '97 was "aren't the Tories useless and sleazy". Because they were and the public had had their gut full for 18 years, he didn't have to offer a political or philosophical critique. All the previous sins of Labour's approaches to power were compounded and reinforced. Facing a choice between adapting to or leading public opinion, always understood by Blair as right wing tabloid editorials, it was more prostration than meek acceptance. Tellingly the one time he did try and lead public opinion was on Iraq, and we know where that ended up. Therefore the current situation, whether Jeremy stays six months or leads the party into the 2020 general election demands something more than what Blair and his acolytes have to offer. It requires politics.

That said, while Blair has the habit of passing banalities off as profundities, he does make one useful point. His affection for "the centre" is a preference for elite politics, of those interludes where certainties are, well, certain, and not likely to be upset by realignments and the rude intrusion of masses of people. It assumed one form during the calm years of the post-war consensus, and another once the destruction wrought by Thatcherism settled down. Politics is in flux right now, and that isn't about to change. But in time, it will. The shape it's going to assume is up for grabs, but as things calm the strength of conservative forces in the party will gather and, if we're not careful, take us through the whole cycle again. Blair is the past, but he is also a warning of what could come.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sword of Vermilion for the MegaDrive/Genesis

When you're a teenager at home and you're blessed enough not to have any responsibilities, time is a stretch of emptiness reaching toward the horizon, and is begging to get filled. In my case, at least in the early 90s, my beloved MegaDrive and collection of games were one time sink of choice. Unfortunately, most of my games were arcade-style fodder that, at most, would take a couple of hours to get through. For more cerebral or easy-going experiences, there were strategy titles like Populous and Mega-lo-Mania, and my trusty copy of Phantasy Star III - the only role-playing game I owned. And yes, it was a proper time thief. An interesting story, diverging plot lines, and four different endings, the first run through kept me occupied for a month or so. And so, quite unexpectedly, when I gave Sword of Vermilion a whirl, I wasn't prepared for a touch of the nostalgics. Despite their development by two separate programming teams with, as far as I can tell, no cross over, the art style of the in-town moments are very similar, as are the buying/selling and conversational mechanics. Even the font and text field are the same colours. It was like going back 25 years ...

Sword of Vermilion was a very early MegaDrive RPG, released more or less at the same time as Phantasy Star II to enthusiastic reviews. What marked it out, however, was its dispensing with the traditional RPG combat system. Whereas encounters with monsters and assorted bad 'uns were usually determined via random number generation heavily modified by character (and non-player character) attribute scores, Sword took a different path. You're endowed with certain scores which, as per normal, can be upgraded via the accumulation of experience points as one advances a level. But encounter a baddy and you're whisked to a combat screen. You walk over to the enemy (or they will bounce/fly/slither/float/walk toward you) and tap button C to smack them with your sword while trying to avoid physical contact. It's quite simple. Easy to pick up and understand, but it can get button mashy as you advance through the game and you're assailed from multiple sides. Luckily, your experience level makes you tougher and gives your sword strikes more heft. So them horrible Gorgon things that enjoy swarming you are instantly dispatched once XP bulks you up.

That is but one of three game modes. The combat and town/castle wandering runs off one engine. Another is a very ropey-looking outdoor/dungeon crawling 3D stages which, truth be told, look worse than the original Phantasy Star on the Master System. And the third comes when you're encountering a boss. Screenshots of these sequences back in the day looked very impressive and, if you have an eye for 16-bit graphical style and its limitations, they do look good. Assuming the form of a one-on-one scrap, Streetfighter stylee, you square off against a mean-looking boss but, ugh, the controls are stiff and your character is painfully slow. Thankfully, the baddies tend to be just as limited and follow a few basic patterns. Still, it is satisfying when you finally skewer something that large.

What's this all in aid of, then? The plot is pretty standard fare. An evil King invaded your daddy's domain, you're whisked away and brought up by a trusty servant, and when you learn the truth it's up to you to avenge your kingdom and reclaim your birthright. Practically, the game is a sequence of marching across the wilderness, finding a town, entering a nearby dungeon, retrieving whatever, heading back to town and then moving to the next one over for pretty much the same. Sounds dull, doesn't it? Put like that, it is, and such was the standard RPG experience back then. Yet in its defence, there was something soothing and relaxing about it, despite the frequent appearance of random enemies. Going back and forth on pointless fetch quests, it's almost therapeutic. There are no major plot points, nothing stands out - it's just a linear path from start to finish. The only twist, if it can be called that, is when a shopkeeper mid-game steals your weapons and money and you have to start from scratch again. But that later turns out to be necessary to the plot.

As mechanics go, despite being an action RPG there isn't much that stands out. Heal up by forking out for a night at the inn. Head to churches for save points (which us where you're resurrected should things go very badly wrong). Its most peculiar feature, I suppose, is Sword is a solitary affair throughout. There aren't many 16-bit RPGs that don't task the player with the acquisition of characters of varying abilities.

Is there a point to writing about this? Yes, it comes back to our previous video game outing and how the two aspects of the game, plot and play (or, narratology and ludology) work together to produce an experience. Modern games integrate dialogue, cut scenes, and gameplay to varying success. In Sword it's a bit more disjointed. The main vehicle of plot delivery is conversation with townsfolk and, typically, the resident royal therein. Once you depart and journey to the nearby dungeon to retrieve whatever, the residents will helpfully inform you about what to do next. It therefore gives you an incentive to seek out absolutely everybody in the hope the game, which is really just an endless grindfest to earn money and experience, imbues your repetitive activities with a little more meaning. There is a clearer separation of story and game, underlined by the different modes - dialogue is only possible in NPC scenes, not in one-on-one fights or the 3D wilderness/dungeon sections. You return to town not only to top up your health, but also on the story. I suppose it couldn't be done any other way when Sword got its Japanese release in 1989.

Retro game-wise, is Sword of Vermilion worth playing today? It depends whether you like 16-bit RPGs, I guess. Confession time: I hadn't properly played a RPG between the mid 90s and last year's outing on Phantasy Star for the blog, so haven't had my expectations modified by your Skyrims and Dragon Ages. Because my preconceptions and gaming habits are stuck in the past, I got plenty of enjoyment out of it. But Sword probably constitutes something of a specialist interest.

Understanding Jeremy Corbyn's Reshuffle

Groundhog Day. Forgive me if I'm mistaken, but hasn't Labour just gone through a ruinous and utterly unnecessary leadership contest that saw the party leader reconfirmed in his position? Please tell me the spectacle of sundry MPs appearing on Sunday politics television playing the unity card and positioning themselves as the paragons of such wasn't a half-remembered dream from a fortnight ago? I feel moved to ask these questions, because since Jeremy Corbyn began his shadow cabinet reshuffle, the bellyaching and briefing are back. And so, on Thursday, when it was clear he intended to appoint rather than allow a deeply antipathetic parliamentary party a total or partial veto over the shadow cabinet, the whingeing and picking apart began. Diane Abbott's appointment called forth a torrent of racist and sexist abuse, but minus the hand wringing from the usual suspects. The unexpected sacking and replacement of Rosie Winterton by Nick Brown has seen her defenestration treated as if the office was hers by divine right. And now mischief is being made because the so-called great offices of state, a detail that was never Something To Be Concerned About until Jeremy occupied the leader's office, are held by people occupying neighbouring London constituencies. Never mind that this is the most diverse shadow cabinet ever.

I'm sick and tired of this bullshit. The vast majority of the party is, and I imagine the public are fed up of seeing the latest manufactured row hog the headlines and bulletins. If people want soap opera, they have EastEnders. Thanks partly to the incessant backbiting, if they want politics they have the Tories - as dismal poll after dismal poll has made clear (and remember, the unreliability of the polls are because they overestimate Labour support).

There is a lot Jeremy has to do to get things rolling again, and his pronounced tendency of not listening to the sensible members of his team is, to put it euphemistically, entirely unhelpful to his own position as Labour leader. That said, while he's mostly received brickbats over his shadow cabinet choices I will, instead, offer plaudits. It shows that he's learning and what has to be done to manage the party after the leadership contest.

He's reasoned - correctly - that his strengthened mandate, the disappearance of a sliver of anti-Jez people, and the arrival of yet more new members can discipline recalcitrant MPs. It seems, at last, that most have recovered from constitutional cretinism and realised that constituency parties are the really sovereign bodies in their patch. That is, at least, if they wish to continue as Labour MPs. Jeremy should also drop Theresa May a discreet thank you note, for she has fortified his position too. Undoubtedly, there are things about her one nationism quite a few Labour MPs would find beguiling. Had she carried on with Dave's social liberalism, a superficially "centre left" Tory party might have seen its first direct recruits from the Labour benches since Reg Prentice crossed the floor in 1977. Yet her embrace of anti-immigrant politics and scapegoating is too much even for Labour MPs who understand those "genuine concerns about immigration". As for the LibDems, let's just say they ain't what they used to be. Hemmed in by the members and without an escape route to other parties, Jeremy knows he has more room for manoeuvre than previously - even with this lunch time's resignation of two junior whips. Hence the dispensing of shadow cabinet elections and promotion of key allies.

There's also precious little self-awareness on the PLP's part about all this. Why, as sceptics and proven opponents were they expecting Jez to reach out? True, all cabinets and shadow cabinets regardless of political colouration and level of government tend to reflect a balance of forces. Ability has to come second, unfortunately. But they've already suffered a comprehensive defeat in the party, and from the experience of last year Jeremy has learned that doling out portfolios to people who would undermine you isn't the best approach to managing matters. Some have returned anyway, and newbies have slotted in, including the much-hyped Keir Starmer in the Brexit brief. Therefore given their track record, and now the breaking of the boycott of the front bench, why from Jez's perspective should he award them a say over who goes in the top team?

It would also be bizarre if Jeremy didn't award the allies who stuck by him. After all, isn't that what leaders do? So the move of Diane Abbott up to the home secretary brief and promotion of Emily Thornberry to shadow foreign (incidentally, the first time a Labour shadow cabinet has seen an even gender split in the "great offices of state" as well as the elevation of a black woman to such a position) ensures that at the very top there's a unanimity of opinion. There will be no more Hilary Benn moments. And if you're going to make a stand on immigration and racism, it's probably best that your immediate team have your back. Diane Abbott, whatever one might think of her, is a consistent campaigner against racism as well as a frequent hate figure for the far right. On an issue as important as the growth in hate attacks, and a government determined to subordinate the health of British capitalism to the needs of the Tory party, you need a right hand woman prepared to make the uncompromising case against scapegoating and xenophobia.

Does this make for a more effective team than the one we had previously? It's certainly more united, even if it is something of a baptism of fire for new MPs like Kate Osamor, Clive Lewis, and Angela Rayner. However, despite everything, even in its disunited state the party collectively won some impressive victories this last year. With government benches chafing after the purge of the Cameroons, abandonment of neoliberal orthodoxy, and what Brexit actually means the opportunities are there for Labour to claw back ground it lost over the summer. Provided, that is, they're not pissed up the wall by more internal disputes or egregious attacks of political miscalculation.