Sunday, 26 March 2017

Douglas Carswell and the Fall of UKIP

As surprises in politics go, this one's right up there with night following day. In case you've hid in a cave or were too dazzled by the March for Europe's liberal virtue, Douglas Carswell has resigned from the United Kingdom Independence Party. Something of a square peg in a round hole, Carswell's politics are complete crap. They dress an apologia for the megawealthy up in the taffeta of individual autonomy and pearls of hypermodernity. That said, his market fundamentalism doesn't come with extra wrappings of racism and sexism, as per official kipperism, nor the patrician know-all arrogance of his bezzy mate.

In his resignation note, Carswell says that it's "mission accomplished" as far as UKIP are concerned, and so there is little point staying around. Nothing, you understand, to do with his summons before the party's NEC, due to be heard Monday afternoon, on allegations that he derailed a knighthood for Nigel Farage. Indeed, old NF himself on Sophy Ridge this Sunday has pledged to stand against Carswell in Clacton next time. There's little chance of that happening, seeing he's a serial bottler. Still, for those of us who despise UKIP some grim satisfaction can be reaped from their implosion as politics comes to grips with the damage they and their highly placed enabling friends have wreaked.

Carswell's resignation is just the latest in the party's pattern of decline. Some might say it was inevitable, but ask yourself this. Do you think he would have resigned if UKIP were doing much better in the polls, if UKIP were driving the news agenda again, and if UKIP had won in Stoke and therefore sustained the momentum of its pre-general election hay day? Of course he wouldn't have.

As argued many times previously, UKIP properly got legs in the wake of the Equal Marriage row as thousands of "unreconstructed" shire Tories decamped and threw their lot in with the purple party. Because the Conservative Party is in long-term decline - it remains to be seen if Theresa May has permanently reversed its fortunes (I'm guessing not) - UKIP as the repository for their most cranky and backward erstwhile supporters, as well as the flotsam and jetsam of the terrified petit bourgeoisie and lumpenising sections of the working class meant they became something and rose to prominence as a force destined for long-term decline. This was written into their DNA not just because its core support was old, nor that it was getting power from strata that are sinking, as important both these things are, but also because UKIP was fusing together ex-Tories, ex-Labour, and the small but, inside a small party, significant bigoted floating voter tendency. With little in the way of stabilisers from its class base, and a membership united only by anti-Europe and anti-immigration sentiments it was always going to be a volatile affair. And that has more or less been the UKIP story since day one: treason and plot.

Despite congenital instability, UKIP was successful because, eventually, Farage emerged as its undisputed 'charismatic' leader and, this cannot be overstated, the media gave UKIP a massive leg up. As the political establishment were seriously spooked by their ubiquity, the party gained momentum. In 2013 and 2014, it came second wherever a parliamentary by-election took place - coming closest in Eastleigh and Heywood and Middleton. It did very well in those years' local elections too, and they were constantly, ceaselessly talked up by the press and broadcast media as primarily a threat to Labour. However, once momentum was lost, which arguably was the case from the general election on (despite last year's gain in Wales), the wheels rattled loose of the bandwagon. As forecast by Farage himself, failure in Stoke meant an exacerbation of UKIP's crisis. Coming after the unlamented departures of Diane James and Steven Woolfe, so Arron Banks has withdrawn his support and is asking for £200k worth of donations back, there's the European Parliament investigation into alleged UKIP expenses fiddles, and now Carswell. It won't be long before others decamp. For instance, what of Suzanne Evans, who is paid by Carswell to carry his bags?

Had the Brexit vote gone the other way, or had Labour set its face against the result then UKIP would likely be enjoying a new lease of life. The predictions of the London ignorati about the cleaning up in Labour constituencies may have come to pass. But that didn't happen. Carswell reaffirms what I've been arguing for the last two years: the declinist tendency is strongly asserting itself and UKIP is collapsing. Its fall might be noisy, it might attract a bit of media attention, but the ginger group of UKIP's future is beckoning the present to hurry up and be it. And it surely will, until the conditions align again for populist right/fascist-lite politics.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Deep Duck Trouble for the Sega Master System

Or Deep Duck Trouble Starring Donald Duck to give this platformer its full title. This 1993 (relative) rarity was one of a clutch of Disney games Sega, or rather the developers the jobs were sub-contracted to, produced in the company's eight and 16-bit glory days. And (nearly) all of them are thought of quite fondly, retrospectively. Castle of Illusion with Mickey Mouse and Aladdin across the MegaDrive and Master System, World of Illusion and Quackshot on the former, and Donald Duck's Lucky Dime Caper on the latter. We definitely won't talk about Fantasia or Ariel the Little Mermaid. For the most part, Sega's Disney games were well-crafted, in part because Disney insisted on having input. After all, if you are licensing your cash cows the game they're pasted into better be alright.

Deep Duck Trouble was a late period entry onto the Master System, and as you might expect it's well programmed and avoids many of the issues that plagued the console. Namely flickering sprites and hideous tinny music. The adventure sees you assume Donald's mantle as you try and restore a necklace to its rightful resting place, all in order to lift a curse cast on Uncle Scrooge when his treasure hunting ways got the better of him. This involves platforming over five areas of a tropical island before facing off against the end boss and saving the day. It's all competently done. The standard zones common to platformers are here - jungles, water, caves, mountains, ice, temples (all that was missing was the desert). It wasn't the first time these themes turned up in a game, and were far from being the last too. Also, as a Disney game, violence had to be muted. Jumping on enemy heads Mario-stylee is okay, as is kicking blocks onto the bonces of baddies too. And, as per a Disney game, Donald cannot "die". Standard video game talk of "lives" is banished and replaced by "tries".

By this time, platformers were ten a penny with very little distinguishing one from the other apart from mascots/franchises. Deep Duck Trouble does at least make an effort in this regard. Rather than fight an end of level baddy, you're posed with a challenge. At the close of the first level you must keep sprinting to avoid coconuts thrown at you from a miniature King Kong who swings among the trees. Don't forget the spikes and the pitfalls too! Reach the end of the stage and he smacks into a tree. Likewise, the water level demands you do something similar, though this time you're frantically swimming up the screen to avoid the jaws of a very snappy shark. Definitely a nice switch from the usual fare.

As well crafted as the game is, there are very annoying cheap deaths from time to time, unnecessarily (and unfairly) tricky bits that see your life, sorry, try tally drop down. This is definitely the case on level five where a drop, which is something usually to be avoided, is actually the way through the level. Considering this was a kids' game on a kids' system, which is how Sega marketed the Master System once the MegaDrive came along, lazy misdirection like this is unnecessary. It's one thing to try and stretch the game experience out, quite another to effectively troll the player.

Going back to Goffman and the sociology of video games, point four of a digital reworking of his own scholarship on games notes how, for solo gamers, it is an outlet for presenting their (gaming) self to them selves - among a number of other things, of course. It's an act of reflexivity, a practice of being explicitly invited to monitor your own action as you respond to pre-programmed moves and, depending on the game, its artificial intelligence will likewise try and counter appropriately. There is none of the latter in Deep Duck Trouble. As an 8-bit title, the platforming action and attack patterns of the baddies are strictly scripted. It's as inflexible as the formations advancing down the screen in a game of Space Invaders. The fact it is quite easy once you get the hang of it is suddenly jarred when that unexpectedly tricky jump appears, ill-placed enemy, or hard-to-dodge obstacle. Getting beyond them means investing either a lot of time to familiarise yourself further with the game, which could add up to many more hours of repetitious gameplay (at least modern titles have much stronger narratives that simulate progression). Or, you could cheat.

Cheating in games has always been something of an ethical grey area, and what constitutes cheating has changed as games have changed. The sorts of things vintage gamers like me would have thought cheating, such as instant respawns and infinite lives, come as standard now. Which, I suppose, befits games' evolution toward interactive cinematic experiences. It goes without saying that cheating in multiplayer matches over the internet is very much frowned upon, but what about in the privacy of your own home? Naturally, no one gives a monkey's if you can unlock all the best weapons from the off. Indeed, for some players, cheating helps them get full value out of the game and therefore enhance the experience. But for simple 8-bit platformers? During my playthrough using the trusty Retron5 I am ashamed to say that save states came in very handy. Stupid mistakes or surprise deaths were and are much easier to avoid of time can be rewound to the point just prior. The application of saving to a game that was never designed to have progress saved fundamentally reshapes the experience. Game over no longer implies a tedious trudge back through the game to the sticking point, only for it to happen again - a cheap death is a momentary inconvenience. The advantage it has is time, especially as the number of tries it takes you to make that perfectly timed platform jump or avoid the tumbling rock from nowhere can be quite a few. Taking out the trudge saves time. If you only get past level four's swooping eagle on the 15th try, that's quite a bit of tedium cut out of the experience.

Does this matter when it comes to gaming reflexivity? It can. Cheating through saving is only an option and one the purists can easily avoid by sticking exclusively to the original hardware or exercising iron will power. For others, for me, because time is short (why play when blogging is the best game ever?) liberal use of cheating allows me to get through games I wouldn't otherwise have time to play. What does that mean when it comes to matters of skill, of the feeling of accomplishment, of meeting a challenge for its own sake? Something to ponder in a future post.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Daniel Hannan, Marxism, and Dishonesty

I do apologise for featuring Daniel Hannan on this blog.

Yes, that is one of the right's leading intellectual lights. In his own words. His own stupid words.

I've picked this out not because Hannan's criticism is interesting and hasn't been said millions of times before, but because it has been repeated ad nauseum for the last century and is as banal as anti-communist boiler plate gets.

What strikes me is the method of argument, which in typical Hannan fashion drips with bad faith. It begins with that old warhorse, the "Marx is responsible for 100 million deaths", a point so risible that to take it seriously impoverishes the standards of political debate. Hannan has after all argued Hitler was a socialist because National Socialist innit, so we shouldn't be shocked to find him trading in bankrupt political stock.

Also of interest is the strategy chosen to prove his "thesis" that Marx was wrong about everything, which is assimilated to everything he predicted being wrong. It goes like this. Look, no revolution! Look, no sign of the poor getting poorer! Since 1848, the year the Communist Manifesto was published, there have been hundreds of revolutions. Hundreds. Some have succeeded, and have typically had fairly modest objectives. The overthrow of dictatorship or authoritarian government and its replacement by liberal democracy is the contemporary form. But even then, counterrevolution can win out. If Hannan wants his socialist revolutions, he can have them. Russia, obviously, but also the failed revolutions in Germany between 1918 and the mid 20s, and France 1968. Sorry Dan, you won't find anywhere in Marx's works a prediction that socialist revolutions would automatically be successful. They everywhere and always depends on the balance of forces. i.e. Politics.

On the poor getting poorer, that firstly wasn't a phrase Marx used - more dishonesty. And secondly, he did note that wealth would increasingly concentrate in ever greater quantities in an ever-diminishing number of hands. And, not that Hannan would notice or even care, there are plenty of people on this planet who work long hours and earn an utter pittance. Poverty reduction and the expanding middle class on a global scale Hannan approvingly noted was, in recent years, largely accounted for by China, a state noted for taking a very hands-on approach to economic policy and a self-identified socialist one to boot! And let's look at some of Marx's other predictions: capitalism's chronic tendency to crisis, the diminishing of the law of value, the replacement of living labour by dead labour (i.e. machines), the constant revolutionising of production and ceaseless churn of social life, the persistence of movements and parties founded on class struggle, the use of foreign labour to divide workers and keep the values of wages down, the non-disappearance of unemployment - need we go on? There are a number of things Marx didn't predict, but from the distance of 150 years since Volume One of Capital was published, perhaps Hannan would like to tell us how each of these don't exist, weren't forecast, and are a figment of the left's dogmatism?

Such as it was, Hannan's argument has to fight shy of the actual facts, of any kind of exegetical engagement with what Marx actually said and the historical record for it to maintain a smidgen of plausibility. And yet being demonstrably false, fake history if you will, it comes back time and again. 50 years from now there will still be people making exactly the same argument. How is this possible? It's because, in politics, truth and evidence are always secondary. Politics is war by less violent, peaceful means, and that means our fabulous parliamentary democracy is always conditioned by the necessity of managing a necessarily contradictory, necessarily conflicting social system crisscrossed by the struggle of interests. Hannan is the son of privilege and spent his formative years in elite institutions. There is little doubt he is a convinced hard right ideologue, and lacking the wit and empathy to think beyond the boundaries of his gilded berth he assumes the air of an expert, the ruling class analogue of front. Something we've seen a bit of lately. With this imagined authority, which is materialised by the platform provided by the Conservative Party as a MEP and the "intellectual" personality conferred by the rightwing media (and any media that treats with him as a Person Who Matters), he has the apparatus to say pretty much what he likes. He can be critiqued and shown to be full of it, but the political economy of Tory punditry protects him. There's an audience for the mendacious and the idiotic, and as a good disciple of free markets he's dutifully supplying a demand. Coincidentally, this position also helps reproduce the intellectual case for the sorts of interests he embodies, which in turn assists the conditioning, tone, and borders of public debate.

This then is Daniel Hannan, an intellectual evasive of intellectual inquiry. A self-styled historian who fights shy of the historical record. A representative of a layer of pundits, commentators, and "thinkers" for whom truth is passé, a tedious, conformist and boringly unoriginal chunterer without a scintilla of merit, let alone credibility and honesty. He is a product, a vessel of interests, and a not terribly sophisticated one at that.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Learning from the Westminster Terror Attack

At the time of writing, three people lie dead because of a hate-filled zealot. Whoever this man was and whatever his motivations were, nothing compelled him to drive a four-by-four down the pavement on Westminster Bridge. A grievance, real or imagined, didn't cause him to leave his home with a machete blade this afternoon. His intention to cause a mass casualty event on the day Belgium and Europe remembered last year's callous attacks on Brussels airport and metro was something dreamt, planned for, and worked toward. As his biography is picked apart, we can try and understand the motivations, but doing so is never an excuse in justifying them.

In this case, the security services acted in an exemplary fashion. The ring of steel protecting Parliament did its job, and the attacker was stopped just inside the gate to the grounds, though not before he stabbed and killed a police guard. Given the sudden nature of the attack, it's very difficult to see what else could have been done, though that does not preclude an analysis of the incident.

And, in a very rare instance, I'm going to defend the intelligence services. There is a very good chance the assailant was on a terror watch list. It's quite possible he had been or was presently under surveillance. Inevitably, the questions will be asked why he wasn't detected and/or picked up before now and prevented from undertaking this afternoon's attack. Again, while it's right such issues should be explored, lessons drawn and, if there is a case of egregious carelessness that those responsible be held to account, what really has to be asked is what could have been done differently? Thankfully, we don't have indefinite detention without trial of suspects, but unless there are teams on standby covering the move of every single suspect then the answer has to be very little. Watching someone getting into their car and driving into central London is not immediately suggestive of suspicious activity. There is no way his intent to kill could be inferred before the car mounted the pavement and started accelerating towards passers by. This kind of attack is next to impossible to prevent if someone is so minded to carry it out.

The main political take home from this, however, is despite the three murders and multiple injuries is that the police response acted exactly as it should. Parliament was protected and the attacker prevented from causing even more harm. Thankfully, the mass carnage we saw in Paris, Brussels, and Berlin was avoided because of timely action. The way to ensure, in the medium to long-term, that terror attacks are ultimately fruitless is by preserving what we have. If the reaction from the government is another curtailment of liberty and freedoms, they've won. If it marks a shift away from multiculturalism, with all its problems, to one-size-fits-all, they've won. If it heralds another round of attacks on Muslims, they've won.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Collapse of the Labour Right

In calling out Jon Lansman and Momentum publicly for the temerity of, you know, organising, Tom Watson has made a fool of himself. Worse than that, in attacking a mooted alliance between Momentum and Unite he has gone so far as to suggest there is something improper about unions seeking to maximise their influence in the Labour Party. It's only a hop, skip and a jump away from questioning the legitimacy of trade unions acting politically at all, and that's a very dangerous game. Understandably, Len McCluskey has replied in his inimitable style and the war of words continue via social media, while spilling out continually into Unite's own bad-tempered general secretary election, and potentially damaging Labour's own council and mayoral campaigns.

Tom Watson is frequently attacked by Corbyn supporters as disingenuous and hypocritical because, let's make no bones about it, his criticisms of them often are. From the Brownist machinations against His Blairness, to the minor skirmishes with Progress during the Miliband years, and now in the era of Corbynism, Tom has acquired and assiduously cultivated a cloak-and-dagger reputation. He is the fixer to end all fixers, the puppet master that has the party bureaucracy dancing along with his manipulations. While he is responsible and accountable for his actions, Tom is a product and heir to a tradition that has long cast a shadow over the Labour Party, and one coming to its end. I am talking about the old Labour trade union right.

Packing meetings, nobbling selections, stitching up internal elections, blocking and suppressing opponents, elevating bad faith to the status of performance art - all lovingly narrated in Uncle John Golding's The Hammer of the Left - are, or were the old right's stock-in-trade. I say were because while the culture of shenanigans is very much part of the party's make up, it is increasingly getting more difficult to pull off. There are three reasons for this. First, there is much greater visibility than previously. Cases of egregious bad behaviour, especially in these factionally charged times, can get publicity. And lots of it. That damages the party politically, and this behaviour impinges on the second factor: the membership. Typically dismissed as keyboard warriors who've never seen doorsteps outside Google Images, in reality the massive 2015-16 intake are no more or less active than the majority of "old" party card holders. They turn up at meetings. They turn up and campaign. Abuses of democracy and process can serve to mobilise and strengthen their determination to stick with the leader and his programme (after all, that is the basis of Jeremy Corbyn's appeal). In effect, the membership, which remains majority Jez, make the discharge of bureaucratic chicanery more difficult and more expensive, politically, for those who indulge it.

And the last point is the virtual disappearance of the trade union right. The fixers of old had one foot in the PLP and the party machinery, and another in the trade unions. While workplace organisation was much stronger and consequently more militant than present before 1979, its concomitant was a quiescent bureaucracy uninterested in rocking the boat too much in the wider party. While nostalgics write of the transmission belt unions provided from the works' canteen to Westminster's terrace, worker MPs, with some exceptions, packed bureaucratic habits of thought alongside their underwear and Sunday best as they made their journey to Parliament. Likewise trade union officialdom reinforced exactly the same sensibility as they engaged in party structures. Keep things on an even keel, anything for a quiet life. The unions wouldn't intervene too overtly or too consistently in "high politics" provided Labour delivered the policies and in return they were expected to pacify and discipline their memberships at the party's behest. The relationship gave trade union leaders and senior officials direct access to ministers and Number 10, and an input into policy, but led to combustible politics as the 1975-79 Labour government shows. Upon Blair's election as Labour leader in 1994, the relationship became increasingly one-sided as the years wore on. The unions were still expected to rein in industrial action, and in return, well, the Tories will be kept out.

This was an unsustainable situation. Readers may recall from the period of the late 90s on how unions slowly but surely turned left. General secretaries preaching the virtues of "partnership" and cooperation were replaced one-by-one by a clutch of officials collectively dubbed the awkward squad. Politically speaking, they were all well within the envelope of big tent trade unionism but to greater and lesser degrees they took more uncompromising stances with regard to members' interests. This firmed up even further after Brown's defeat and the dawning of the Tory/LibDem coalition. First, most affiliated unions organised (haphazardly, it has to be said) for Ed Miliband and were for the most part later forced by active members into stumping for Jeremy Corbyn. Meanwhile, trade union officialdom has almost been entirely replaced by a layer or organisers who were lay members during the New Labour years and, in some cases, would have participated in disputes Blair and Brown oversaw. This is particularly the case with the Communication Workers' Union and the monomaniacal attempts by a Labour government to soften Royal Mail up for privatisation. The overall result is a shift in trade union bureaucracies and powerful lay committees to range from the soft left to Corbynism in political composition. Only USDAW and wee Community remain largely unaffected.

You can see where this leads. When it comes to affiliated trade union input into Labour, basically the material base for a union-backed Labour right has withered away. Because Blairism, as a variant of liberalism believed its own Third Way waffle and failed to understand the labour movement. It simultaneously set about undermining the electoral coalition it built in the country, while negligently and blindly destroying its own allies on the trade union right in the party. While unions are not monoliths, they are not disposed to be the guarantor of machine politics any longer, especially as it tries and stymies their influence. And so the material base for that has largely shrunk to party positions - lay and staff - elected office, and whatever can me mustered via Labour First, Progress, and the affiliated societies. In this context, more trade union participation represents a threat. Hence the overt hostility shown Len McCluskey, who has long promised more Unite input into the party, is far from an irrational dislike.

Once placed in this context, the anonymous briefings to the press, the moaning at PLP meetings, the compliance unit and its doings, the studied refusal to fight the leadership politically, the bizarre criticisms levelled at Momentum as a Corbyn proxy and Unite, and the utterly counter-productive behaviour makes sense. They are, effectively, the last gasps of a gravely weakened tradition lacking a discernible way of coming back. If they want to retake the Labour Party and become relevant again, a massive rethink is needed. But for as long as they're unwilling to even understand why there are where they are (apart from one brave and largely unacknowledged exception), they're stuck. If not doomed.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The SWP's Split from TUSC

I can't be arsed with yet another disingenuous Labour Party spat, so I'm turning to less weightier matters. Socialist Worker announced week before last that the SWP were departing from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. Coatesy over at the Tendance has the story. Their reason for departing is because TUSC voted to field candidates in this May's local elections (talk about leaving it late in the day), and as far as the SWP are concerned this meant its participation in the alliance had become a barrier to cosying up to the Labour left and recruiting. I hate to break it to you guys, but that's not your bar to success.

In truth, the SWP had only ever been a semi-detached TUSC affiliate, and was always viewed as such by its primary sponsor. Writing in the latest issue of the soaraway Socialist, Clive Heemskirk notes the SWP's refusal to take political responsibility for TUSC candidates in England and Wales at the recent conference vote and so their departure wasn't unexpected. Readers with long memories will recall the Socialist Party itself walked out of the Socialist Alliance in 2001 as it would not/could not countenance following a majority line enforced by the SWP, and so 16 years on we find the SWP swanning off because it could not tolerate being a minority subordinate to the SP. I love me some irony.

Clive's response to the SWP's flounce goes on to draw distinction between the SWP in England and Wales, and what's left of their sorry outfit in Scotland. There, the Swps remain affiliates of Scottish TUSC and are participating in this May's council elections. This is on the grounds that the SNP's demolition of Labour has shown alternatives are possible, and that Our Kez is a Blairite. Not unreasonably, Clive points out that from the perspective of sects aspiring to lead a proletarian revolution, Carwyn Jones and Welsh Labour, and local government across England are qualitatively no different. Rather than forcing a Liverpool-style confrontation with the government - which is the blueprint for running councils For All Time, regardless of circumstances - Labour have taken on the role of administering cuts and therefore little better than Tory authorities who wield the axe with alacrity.

Of course, the real reason the SWP left TUSC is a case of why bother? Throughout its history, the "party" has zigzagged from one position to another. Before the Socialist Alliance and Respect, elections were distractions from the class struggle. Then during their star crossed affair with the Gorgeous One, leaflets about dog poo and getting the vote out were the pinnacles of revolutionary politics. And since then, it's back to tedious old movementism with dilettante forays into elections under the TUSC banner. For an organisation past its sell by, and with a reputation for toxicity among labour movement activists (especially younger comrades) on a par with Nigel Farage, they certainly don't lose anything by withdrawing from TUSC.

As for TUSC and the SP itself, they too aren't exactly going places. Rumours persist that the RMT are seriously thinking about reaffiliation to Labour, and so they should. But for the SP themselves, it's no secret they've had a very difficult time orienting towards Corbynism. First, after years of saying the Labour Party was dead for the purposes of socialist politics it springs back into life. Beyond petitioning and flogging their papers on the margins of the Corbyn movement, their impact has been nil. Even worse, there is anecdotal evidence that Corbynism is undercutting them. However, as the SP has more of a root in political realities than the SWP (which isn't saying much) the option of packing their bags and trying to ponce off campaigns a la their erstwhile bedfellows doesn't exist. All they can do is wait and hope for an opening seeing as their campaign to get "former Labour Party members" (i.e. members of Militant's editorial board and others) reinstated went nowhere.

However, this isn't entirely down to having-nothing-better-to-do. As the SP noted, their local election campaigns are "targeted". This might have something to do with a collapse in activists willing to put up, but also, they can "help" Corbyn. This is probably crediting them too much nous, but they know their vote is going to be utterly derisory. By standing against councillors and council candidates they view as anti-Corbyn, TUSC might just win enough to prevent them from being elected. As Momentum fights inside, the SP are taking them on outside. The "Blairites" are weakened and, it is to be hoped, Corbyn supporters would be grateful. That a Tory or a kipper could get in instead is of little consequence. That it would cause nary a ripple on events unfolding in the Labour Party doesn't matter either. The main audience to be convinced of their continued efficacy and relevance are SP members themselves. Appearances of everything, their real standing in the world, nothing.

And so another milestone in TUSC's and, indeed, British Trotskyism's demise passes. Unfortunately for comrades clinging to the tradition, there isn't going to be an influx of tens of thousands to save them. They - the SP and SWP - passed up their moments to make history. Instead, they can look forward to being less a plaything and more a minor trinket, forgotten and seldom seen at the bottom of history's pocket.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Audacity of Osborne

I hear tell of George Osborne applying for the Evening Standard vacancy only after other people came to him for advice on their applications. What a charmer. Still, his landing the editorship of London's biggest free sheet is as shocking as it is audacious. How is it someone barely able to string a sentence together, let alone lacking journalistic experience of any kind, can simply drop into and run one of the country's biggest titles, and carry on doing another five jobs, including the nominally full-time role of representing the good people of Tatton?

Connections, of course. Standard proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev said "I am proud to have an editor of such substance, who reinforces The Standard's standing and influence in London and whose political viewpoint - socially liberal and economically pragmatic - closely matches that of many of our readers". Lebedev is the son of an oligarch who got stinking rich thanks to the plundering of Russian industry after the fall of the USSR, and has basically spent his entire life swanning around the jet set and organising parties for celebrities and other chums in London. Osborne and Dave are previous attendees of these lavish jollies, which is pure coincidence, of course. For Lebedev, buying the former chancellor for the pocket change of £200k a year ensures he has an in where the future of the Conservative Party is concerned. Favours rendered always come with the expectation of favours to be conferred.

Of Osborne himself, this move nakedly demonstrates the incestuous character of our elites and, fundamentally, how they work. It shows how the dispositions, networks, and cultures of our gilded rulers form a social mesh that automatically qualifies them within the terms of that social world for the privileged positions of running our most powerful and influential institutions when such opportunities arise. It doesn't matter that Osborne isn't and has never been a journalist, his social weight and inertia helps ensure it is not a matter of plugging a square peg into a round hole. This process of fitting, of integrating individuals was something the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu spent his career exploring. Permit me a moment of self-plagiarism:
His basic ideas are that each of us are endowed with a set of dispositions and preferences acquired throughout our lives (the habitus), and this acquisition is always overlaced by patterns of domination and (relative) privilege. My working class Tory background, for example, is part of my being and conditions my interests, dispositions and position-takings in ways I am aware and not aware of. And it will always be the case. More obvious examples are how the physicalities of our bodies, the genders, ethnicities, and disabilities condition and shape the habitus. The habitus is socially acquired and is irreducibly social. Bourdieu also argued that societies can be understood as if they are great meshes of overlapping fields. All human endeavour, from the operation of culture, through to the internal doings of institutions and right down to the pecking order in the local bowling club can be understood as if they were economies. The marketplace is typically a scene of competition (and collusion) between actors to secure market share, hence profits, hence economic capital for themselves. Other human activities can be understood the same way. Education systems see pupils compete through a battery of assessments for grades, i.e. cultural capital. Literary fiction is a competition among authors for the cultural capital specific to that field - prizes, critical acclaim, recognition. Politics the acquisition of political capital, and so on. What Bourdieu does is to link up habitus and field. Through socialisation, education, extra-curricular interests, work and so on one's habitus acquires social and cultural capital, and the more one possesses the better fit there is between the individual and a greater number of fields. It's not that Oxbridge graduates are especially brainy, it's that their acculturation and networks disproportionately favours their chances of succeeding across a greater range of social fields. They have the strategies and know how to get on that puts them at an advantage vis a vis the rest of the graduate population ... This, however, is not a theory of unproblematic social integration. It's a theory of best fit.
What the ownership of large quantities of cultural capital does is endow an over-exaggerated sense of one's self-worth as well as entitled expectations. Osborne, having effortlessly done the Member of Parliament thing (the benefit of having staff who can do the job for you!) and undermined the position of British capitalism from Number 11, again without breaking a sweat, for him the editorship of the Standard is merely just another set of meetings he will attend to, a few bits of documents to shuffle through, and a few decisions to be made for others to carry out. This mode of working is pretty standard among our social betters. For ridiculous money and wedges of prestige, their actual responsibilities barely extend beyond reading and commenting on briefing notes. These are hyped up as difficult, complex tasks that only the super-talented can do, but all their discharge actually requires is acculturation and a bit of front.

The politics of the move are more than foolish. Osborne, hailed as a genius by people who can't tell the difference between it and deviousness, could well end up harming his prime ministerial ambitions and the standing of Lebedev's comic. While most people who read papers know they have a political affiliation and editorial line, the legitimacy in part derives from their formal separation from the parties they back. The little bit of critical distance confers authority on editorials, and also means that politicians themselves pay attention. Because Theresa May and Sadiq Khan know the Standard is a vehicle for Osborne's views, neither are going to take its criticism and cajoling at all seriously. Indeed, in Khan's case - despite his ill-judged congratulations - they can be publicly dismissed with virtually no electoral backwash from Standard readers.

And so, George Osborne. The move into journalism, if it can be called that, is certainly a hubristic one. But we all know what follows on after.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Dutch Lessons for the Centre Left

A much-hyped populist-right party with a "charismatic" figurehead and a sideline in racism, where have we heard that story before? Well, across nearly every Western liberal democracy it seems. But in the Netherlands today, the exit polls strongly suggest Geert Wilders' misnamed Freedom Party (PVV) has juddered to a deserved halt. The hype surrounding his person served to boost turn out of anti-Wilders sentiment. Their seat tally is up from 12 to 19, but hardly the lead they were hoping for. Likewise the liberal-leftish Democrats 66 (D66) and the Christian Democrats also move up to 19 while the governing People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) make for the biggest party with a likely haul of 31 seats. The Green Left also make an advance from minor party status to the big leagues with a possible 16 seats. The checking of Wilders and his rancid politics is welcome (remember, it happened here first), but the other big story is the complete collapse of the PvdA or, for you and me, the Dutch Labour Party.

Going into this election, the PvdA held the second largest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer, or House of Representatives. At 35, it was only outstripped by the VVD at 40, and so governed in a grand coalition of the centre left and centre right. As the junior partner, the PvdA's leader Lodewijk Asscher (pictured) served as Deputy Prime Minister to the VVD's Mark Rutte. And the coalition proved to be problematic for both parties. No sooner was the ink dry on their 2012 agreement, they shared a plunge in poll ratings. The VVD tumbled from around 40% and has mostly languished between 24 and 28 percentage points since. Not good. The PvdA's fall from approximately 38% was even more immediate and spectacular. By late 2013 it sunk to a low of 13%, and on the eve-of-poll were commanding, if that's the right word, under eleven per cent. That will give them nine seats. In short, a complete disaster and shambles.

I know people on the centre left don't want to hear it, but I'm going to spell it out again anyway. The malaise afflicting social democratic and labourist politics isn't a force of nature, it's not that electorates have become massive racists or impatient with the boring, plodding work of parliamentary government. The collapse of PASOK in Greece, the humiliation about to be visited on the Socialist Party in France, the failure of Renzi's referendum in Italy, the dismal performance of the Democrats and blue collar swing to Trump have a common theme. Indeed, the collapse of Scottish Labour and the 2015 evisceration of the Liberal Democrats share it too. All of them, every single one of them, did and were seen to be acting against the interests of their constituencies.

Blair-like Third Way politics might have fooled leaders of class and labour movement-based parties that class and labour movements don't matter any more, but political realities and interests do not respect wonkish delusions. Enacting policies that attack our people, defined broadly as the coalition of voters who are conscious that their interests are best served by returning the centre left, will only break them up. Pushing through cuts, attacking unions, undermining public provision, the promotion of market reforms, all of these policies hurt our people, alienate them, and fracture the bedrock of our support. Our alliance thrives on solidarity. It weakens and splinters under conditions of insecurity. It doesn't take genius to work it out.

Unfortunately for the PvdA, they now join that long list of miserable failures. The very act of going into government with its most bitter opponent was bad enough - imagine a Tory/Labour coalition - but to then sit with them as you deliver a programme of austerity that attacks your own base ... words do not exist to describe such stupidity and recklessness.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Nicola Sturgeon's Independence Ambush

Back in the halcyon times of the UK Left Network discussion list, plenty of participants had bust ups with the grandly over-titled Scottish Republican Socialist Movement - a "movement" with more initials than members, one of the slogans often attending its adherents' contributions was "Britain out of Ireland, Scotland out of Britain". Well, it has to be said, that's not looking anywhere as fanciful as it did 15-16 years ago.

Theresa May must be bitterly cursing Nicola Sturgeon's intervention in the Brexit debate and reminding her of the almighty hash she's making of it. A scant 24 hours earlier, this blog happened to raise the issue that Westminster and its media had seemingly forgotten about, the Scottish dimension to Brexit. Indeed, by all accounts Sturgeon's pledge to put a second independence referendum in motion caught the government completely on the hop. While I don't think too much of her politics - palest pink social justice politics plus independence monomania - Sturgeon is much cannier than the flotsam and jetsam of the Tory elite, and that includes our dear leader. For instance, just check out her lame, not to say hypocritical, reply to the First Minister.

Ever since the UK's first near-death experience at the hands of the Scottish independence referendum result, the SNP have been itching to have a second crack at it. After all independence at whatever price is their party's raison d'etre. Expecting them not to advocate for it, strategise for it, and work toward it is like supposing the Tories would not hand perks and privileges out to the already wealthy. With Holyrood in the party's control and as near as dammit a full roster of Scottish constituencies at Westminster, Sturgeon and the SNP have an opportunity they just cannot pass up. You would have thought the presence of so many Scottish Nationalists in clear view from the Prime Minister's seat might have caused her to take some notice of them. Even Hammond thought they were worth a cheap troll. And yet, for all of May's talk about the preciousness of the United Kingdom, for all her sharey carey nonsense, her determination to seriously weaken British capitalism for the sake of preventing a few tens of thousands of Europeans here, a few tens of thousands of Europeans there coming here to work and contribute was always going to put her on a collision course with the Scottish government. Let there be no doubt. Theresa May is responsible for this mess. It is her, no one else, that has gone out of her way to ignore the pro-EU aspirations of a voting majority of Scots.

As far as Sturgeon is concerned, May's stupidity is a gift. Here we have a clear case of Westminster forcing on Scotland a political reality it did not vote for. The promise set out in The Promise - remember that? - that Scotland is an equal and valued partner in the UK is shown to be demonstrably false. Sturgeon and the SNP have a grievance. And, fortuitously for the pro-independence case, one of the key props of Better Together, EU membership, is going to get wrenched away from them. While it is true an independent Scotland would have to re-apply as soon as it leaves the UK, for the SNP and its hegemonic "inclusive" civic nationalism, it has the advantage of aligning more happily with the liberal utopianism that attends the EU than the backward, little Englandism of Number 10. Scotland does and always will carry out more business with the rest of the UK than the EU, but economic realities these days are trumped, sometimes literally, by nonsense nationalism. All Sturgeon is doing is striking while the iron is hot. The forces of unionism are divided and weak. The much-talked about return of Scottish Toryism is little to crow about, and Scottish Labour virtually used itself up in defending the union last time and is something of a shambles, unfortunately. If not now for the SNP, when?

There's also the small matter of the SNP's immediate interests getting served. Scottish local elections are coming up and, surely, the party can expect to do very well indeed. Even if the results are a mere adjustment in toward Westminster/Holyrood levels of support, the SNP can reasonably expect to net hundreds of seats, mostly at Labour's expense. I don't want to be cynical (who, me?), but throwing independence back into political contention has the happy consequence of obscuring the party's record in government. A less-than-stellar performance on education and an outright refusal to effectively use the powers available to it to ameliorate cuts coming from Westminster immediately spring to mind.

Nevertheless, it could turn out that Sturgeon is doing the rest of the UK a service. An independence referendum isn't likely for a couple of years, and she knows the harder the Brexit the easier the SNP's case will be. May doesn't want to go down in history as an even worse Prime Minister than her predecessor. She doesn't want to be the one nation Tory who sacrificed the UK on the altar of border controls and so, yes, it is possible that Sturgeon's ambush, for all the sound and fury, might force her to moderate her negotiating position and make an independence referendum victory less likely. How delightfully ironic.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Will Brexit Kill the Boundary Review?

I'm breaking that rule, again. You know, the one forbidding ventures into the realm of political predictions. Perhaps the recent foray into long range forecasting has empowered me to speak about matters in the nearer term. So here it is: the redrawing of constituency boundaries isn't going to happen. Okay, let me rephrase that, it's looking increasingly unlikely that the government are going to follow through. Bold claim, but what's the basis for it?

Look at the chaos embroiling Theresa May's government. Brexit was and is a tricky proposition, and by stupidly aiming for the worst kind on offer her government is unnecessarily multiplying problems for itself. Determined to be the super-toughest on immigration, May is determined that there is no way UKIP can outflank them on the right ever again. Yes - and just when you thought Tory leaders had stopped tilting to this dysfunctional bunch of has-beens, May carries on the tradition established by her predecessor. As such, not only is she colliding with the reality-facing sections of her backbenches over guarantees for EU residents, but this foolishness is imperilling the unity of the UK, again. Nicola Sturgeon has rattled the cage of a summer 2018 independence referendum, and the ongoing deadlock over the Northern Ireland executive - plus questions marks over the border and the overdue decaying of Loyalism there - puts the possibility of a united Ireland on the feasibility list. If either of these come to pass and the government carelessly loses a part of the UK, it's curtains for the Prime Minister.

Apart from that, our old friend, alleged Conservative election fraud during 2015 is making menacing forays back into the front and centre of Westminster politics. The emergence of running the Thanet campaign full-time in a clear breach of civil service rules, and now Grant Shapps weighing in to confirm the allegations ... oh, what a lovely mess! The pressure will be on the CPS to not take matters further once police investigations are completed, but if they do and charges levied lead to successful prosecutions, May could see her majority disappear mid-way through negotiations with Brussels. Not ideal.

Oh yes, and there is also the small matter of the National Insurance nightmare. An unforced error from the point of view of politics, it has merited front page coverage for a further day as well as being a main talking point during the Sunday politics shows. If only the bedroom tax or cuts to the disabled had commanded anywhere near as much concern. This occasioned another bout of acrimony but also, interestingly, May went out her way to defend the change. What that means is she cannot be seen to retreat from her position. She has made sure Hammond's policy is her policy. Having seen down the grammar school rebellion, and opposition to cuts to disability benefit, she'll try bulldozing this one. Retreat would make her look weak, and an indecisive profile on the eve of Brexit negotiations would be politically calamitous.

Still, May is by nature cautious. With chaos exploding around her, she wouldn't welcome more distractions and "unnecessary" backbench rebellions. This, alas, is what redrawing constituency boundaries promises. With the commanding poll lead, Tories normally happy to vacate disappearing seats likely to be lost at the next election for a twilight in the Lords might now object. Even never-weres and never-will-bes entertain delusions of ascending to high office, so why abandon any chance of that? In short, a plan means another possible rebellion. The second problem is May cannot simply stuff the Lords with refugees from her benches. Given the boundary exercise is partially justified by reducing the cost of politics, it makes her vulnerable to charges of cronyist profligacy and venal self-interest, a badge her one nation image would be wise to avoid. The second problem, according to chatter at Westminster, is parliamentary time. There is a growing realisation in the Commons that the overdetermination of politics by Brexit will crowd out legislative time for everything else. The raft of legislation needed to establish a new trading relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, and the scrutiny this requires has been estimated to take up to 10 years. Yes, if this blog is still going in 2027 Brexit will be a regular feature, so there's something to look forward to. Therefore the unnecessaries are going to get squeezed, and that could very well include the boundary review recommendations - especially so if, by then, Jeremy Corbyn still leads Labour and we languish behind in the polls.

I could be wrong. I sometimes am. But a reading of the situation suggests the long grass is the most likely home for whatever the Boundary Commission eventually comes up with.