Thursday, October 12, 2017

Playing with fire

This is a trailer for a book that is worth your time and money. Much of the discussion of Brexit is about economics, but a large section of the vote to leave was about immigration. What some people were voting for was the forcible expulsion of foreigners. They didn't phrase it that way. They used euphemisms like 'ending freedom of movement,' but they meant something a little more savage. The referendum has led to increased incidents of hate crimes, as this chilling Panorama programme shows. This and the book tell us about the human cost of playing politics with people, people who didn't even have the right to vote on their fate.

Racism was harnessed by the leave campaign to win it. This is not to say all leave voters are racist, far from it, but enough were to swing the result. Nor did Brexit create xenophobia. However, this accursed referendum has acted as a legitimating tool and has ended inhibitions against the expression of hate. Something good about the country has died.

Nationalism and racism are potent forces for mobilising the worst in society. They are a curse that has killed millions through war and genocide. The EU was a response, and a clever one. It didn't try and create the European super state of myth. It didn't try and abolish the nation state. Instead of utopianism, it gradually softened borders. It did that through integrating trade in a single market and through ensuring that every EU citizen became, in effect, a dual national. We are citizens of both our own country and the EU. It was practical too. Driving licences, pet passports, mobile phones, reciprocal health care, and others became Europe-wide, making life easier. Freedom of movement is part of that softening. It is a heavily circumscribed right. Any stay over three months is subject to stringent conditions (not that the UK enforced them). But it opened up opportunities to live and work in different EU states, without onerous bureaucratic restrictions.

Nationalists, and that means most Eurosceptic politicians in the UK, resented this and wanted to firm up borders again. They used the worst of populist rhetoric, spread lies, and dropped dark hints. It was playing with fire, but they preferred winning their game to the risk of being burnt. They thought they were safe anyway, the flames would only consume others. Their behaviour was contemptible. They encouraged dark forces to emerge from the corners to where they had been confined. They wanted their right-wing fantasy at all costs, costs that were born by the people in this book and documentary. I look at Brexit and sometimes wonder, what have we become?

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

An elegy

This is a gorgeous elegy for England, written in despair about Brexit, inspired by the death of Prince, all the while referring to the death of another prince, Hamlet. Not bad for a pop song. There's a personal element to this. One of the band members was a student in an 'A' level Politics evening class I taught back in the mid 80s. He was a guitarist changing himself into an academic. Now he's turning himself back again. I can't stop listening to it and I love the evocative video too.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Murder most foul

A few days ago the Daily Telegraph led its front page with the speech of that egregious liar, our Foreign Secretary, under the by-line: "The Roaring Lion." This is quite mad. So is the speech by this arch reactionary in fancy dress who talks of Brexit in terms of Agincourt. Theresa May's speech, dogged by a virus, a prankster, and collapsing scenery worthy of the worst 1960s soap opera, was a disaster. But it was one of cringe making pathos, as the inadequate attempted the impossible. It wasn't the worst speech of the conference. She was inept; Johnson and Rees-Mogg were worse, they were sinister.

Whenever I hear the nationalist right expressing their deep love of our country and the glories that will come to us when we shake off the tyrannical yoke of our biggest trading partners and closet allies, I don't think of their disregard of simple things like facts, evidence, or truth. Instead I think of Oscar Wilde:

And all men kill the thing they love, 
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look, 
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Nationalism kills patriotism; and it kills the country it professes to love.

It's one reason why nationalists like referendums. They are faux-democracy; they flaunt democratic values, even as they undermine them. Democracy is a network of interlocking institutions, checks and balances, underpinned by elected representatives. Referendums by-pass all these safeguards and offer a one-off marketing exercise. Sell your fad or obsession to enough people just once and the entire structure of democracy is undermined. Referendums kill democracy.

All British national and regional institutions were opposed to Brexit. All parliaments, councils, and assemblies were opposed. Business and trade unions were opposed. Academics and the medical profession were opposed. Scientists and all our trading partners and allies were opposed. It could never happen. There was one shot. A referendum, where a bare majority of the honest but inexpert could overrule the lot. This wasn't the triumph of democracy, so much as its betrayal.

Nationalist crimes agains democracy are being committed in Hungary and Poland. While the polarisation in Britain is now being experienced by Spain. I don't know enough about Catalonia to have an informed opinion, other than a revulsion at the brutality of the Spanish Police, but the Catalan left are making it clear that they do not support the nationalists.
The appalling scenes of police violence that took place on 1 October in Catalonia along with the most baffling disrespect for democratic procedures and democratic substance that preceded them a month ago in the Catalan Parliament urges us to raise a collective voice.
This voice belongs to the democratic, non-aligned left, a left whose expression we have been longing for. While this voice unequivocally and strongly condemns the authoritarian violence endorsed by the central government, it sternly and democratically resists nationalistic discourse. We refuse to accept this binary as the choice we must face.
And in the same way we should cancel Brexit, assert our democratic values, heal our divisions, and end the xenophobic hostility that the referendum raised. In that way we can save the country we love, rather than let it be transformed into the plaything of a deranged and obsessive right.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

A hard choice

I can't make up my mind.

For those not in the know, this was in the League Cup. Palace's league record this season is played 7, lost 7, goals for 0, goals against 17. Well you have to laugh - I suppose.

Health and the nation

During the past few months, indirectly, I have had need to be extremely grateful to the NHS. In fact, over the last couple of years friends and family have made me too familiar with hospital wards and waiting rooms. I looked and saw the technology, the profound expertise and the sheer hard work all around me. I saw skilled people dedicated to saving the lives of my friends, solely because they, like me, are citizens of a civilised country. I know that anyone, whoever they are, can get the best help possible. This is what the Americans denigrate as "socialised medicine." And, my, are we lucky to have it.

Now read this article from Jonathan Lis. It's a brief summary of the risks posed to the NHS by Brexit. It's not that it could be suddenly dismantled, but it's more the worry of a long, slow erosion of the service as the result of pressures on resources, staffing, and funding. Lis picks up on some of the consequences of leaving the EU that are not as frequently mentioned too.
While remain campaigners stressed the risks to the NHS of reduced immigration and a diminished economy, few mentioned the €3.5bn supplied by the European Investment Bank to the NHS since 2001, or publicised the dangers to cancer patients of leaving the European Atomic Energy Community or the European Medicines Agency. The government, for its part, is so consumed with fire-fighting that it is neglecting to recognise the NHS for what it is: one of Brexit’s key issues, and potentially its most high-profile piece of collateral damage.
This is something that everyone, leaver or remainer, will experience at some point in their life; a service made worse for no good reason. Once again, I can only hope that someone stops this madness now.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

In praise of pragmatism

I have just passed my 65th birthday. I'm officially an old age pensioner. This isn't a bad time to reflect on the most important division in modern British politics. Sure we are split by class, region, and by big geographical differences. But there is one thing that cuts through it all, something that is consistent within all classes, groups, and areas - it's age. Unlike people of my generation, the majority of young people are overwhelmingly in favour of being a member of the European Union and much more likely to vote Labour.

That would be cause for optimism from my point of view if it weren't for the fact that we have a Conservative government hell bent on leaving the EU. They have their dream too. It's of an independent, ethnically homogenous Britain, one in true Trumpian rhetoric that has been restored to greatness. The young look at this and don't see utopia; they see a prison. Nostalgic Britain is somewhere to escape from. Europe offers liberation. Unconcerned by immigration, freedom of movement promises them a continent of opportunity that Brexit removes.

The irony is that 2016 is probably one of the last years where it would be possible for leave to win a referendum, and then only narrowly. The demographics are overwhelmingly against the possibility of Brexit in the future. Yet the future is to be bound in perpetuity by the present.

Both generations are dreamers. But the blissful vision of one generation is the nightmare of the other.

Dream is the right term too. I saw recently one of those little articles that provide a condensed version of an idea for easy digestion. This one contrasted the difference between opinion and evidence. You could just as easily substitute the terms the ideal and the material, fiction and reality, belief and truth, abstract and concrete. The problem is that opinion can be held contrary to evidence and be bloody difficult to shift. Brexit is an example.

Brexit is a fantasy divorced from reality. Eurosceptics spent forty odd years arguing that we should leave the European Union. They never bothered to ask the question about how it could be done, or research the real consequences. No details, just wishful thinking and empty rhetoric, bolstered by a few comforting myths. The result is that they haven't a clue. In deciding to interpret a narrow majority as the "will of the people," and, by implication, to see the other half of the population as "enemies of the people," they now have to manage reality. And they can't. It's too difficult.

Now turn to the Labour Party. I should be feeling optimistic. But though the future looks assured, there is another problem. Youthful enthusiasm is directed towards another dream. They are lionising a rather mangy old lion. They are wrapped up in adoration of an elderly backbencher of minimal achievement and limited ability. He is adored as a symbol, not as reality. Like Brexit, Corbyn has become whatever his adherents wants him to be. This is also divorced from reality.

The biggest contradiction for the enthusiastic pro-EU Corbynista is that he is an old Bennite Euroscpetic. He has always been opposed to membership of the EU. And despite a carefully calculated ambiguity, the leadership is adamant that Britain is going to leave the European Union. What's more, he keeps repeating things about the single market that are simply untrue. Yet Labour hoovered up the votes of remainers. Image and reality are completely at odds with each other.

Let's get material. It's time to drag out that old, semi-forgotten word, pragmatism. It's been discarded because it became a euphemism for acceptance or inaction. In my book it means dealing with reality. And radical pragmatism was defined beautifully by Patrick Geddes: "the realizable best that can be made of the here and now, if we invoke and use all the resources available, physical, mental and moral."

A radically pragmatic approach to Brexit would be to abandon it. There are no material benefits. It would make us poorer and diminish our role in the world. Membership of the EU on the really advantageous terms we already have is the best option available. The political consequences of remaining and the loss of face it would entail are as nothing to the damage of leaving.

And beyond that, the realities that are eroding the Tory party and animating the young are the problems that face people in their everyday lives – housing, poverty (both in and out of work), low pay, rotten employment, insecurity, debt, and many others. How are we to deal with them? Not by creating some imaginary future, how are we to do it now, as quickly as possible, for everyone today? That's what would drive a radical pragmatic politics.

Because I am old, I remember earlier times. In 1978 the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm published an essay, The Forward March of Labour Halted? It was reissued in extended book form in 1981 after Margaret Thatcher's election victory. It has dated, but its significance was that it argued that British society had changed, the working class had fragmented, and Labour needed to respond to a different world. Its conclusion was that Labour needed to "formulate not only what we would want to do, but what can be done." Indeed. It's time to wake from the reverie and deal with complex reality, to value the contribution of experts, and to elevate practical knowledge over vague illusions. It won't be easy. It never is.


Sometimes golden, but sometimes due to difficult times.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Wholesale prejudice

I have been saying all along that Brexit is a victory for the right. It was the obsession of parts of the Conservative Party who saw leaving the EU as the true path to paradise – either a libertarian one with a free market and a minimal state, or a nationalist heaven of restored Victorian values and imperial preference. We are in this mess purely because of their persistence and their ability to wreck the Tory party if they didn't get their way. Yet they have had fellow travellers from the other side, a dogged band of leftists from a variety of persuasions. Whether they are after creating socialism in one country or some form of nationalist socialism, the historical precedents are not pretty. Simon Wren-Lewis has superbly eviscerated the economic case they put forward here. I thoroughly agree.

"Lexit" raised its head again last Sunday as Corbyn, to the horror of trade union leaders, committed Labour to a hard Brexit, only mitigated by meaningless platitudes and erroneous suggestions about the single market, jobs, and "tariff-free" trade.

Despite having said precisely the same previously, John McDonnell rowed back once it became clear that this was kicking up a row, suggesting that Britain could stay in the single market if public opinion changed. Whether this was tactical or genuine is open to question, though it's clear Labour is as split as the Tories.

What incensed me is that Corbyn also put himself firmly in the anti-immigration camp. He blamed "wholesale" Eastern European immigration for worsening working conditions and reducing wages, particularly in the building trade. As a result, he insisted, free movement of people had to end. It was an evidence-free assertion and an ancient trope. Research points to immigration as being a net benefit, though some anecdotal accounts suggest that there may be problems at the margins (never nice if you are one of the people in that margin of course). Regardless, there are three big difficulties with his argument.

The first is that any problems are not ones of immigration, but of exploitation. To say that exploitation will cease if we stop foreigners coming into the country is risible. It blames the victims.

The second is that it's the sort of red meat that some on the middle-class left think that you have to throw at working-class people to make them like you and abandon UKIP. It's facile and condescending, but, most importantly from a left perspective, it addresses what are often described as the 'white working class' in terms of their whiteness and not of their class. It's the kind of divisive narrative socialists used to despise.

Finally, this marginal problem is not solved by dealing with the issue itself, but by removing a universal reciprocal right. His solution to exploitation in the building trade is to stop British pensioners retiring to Spain.

These are not left-wing views.

I would like him to answer this question from an Anglo-Belgian family:
"Do these Brexiters ever consider how many ordinary people’s lives they have harmed?”
Does he? Do they? Johnson, Gove, Farage, and now, openly, Corbyn?

This whole farrago is the consequence of the obsessions of nonentities producing a situation that is being managed by mediocrities. As the incredible difficulty of extracting anything reasonable from increasingly difficult negotiations become ever more apparent, opinions are starting to change.

The details of the negotiations are nightmarish. The government is unprepared, divided, and has no vision of what it wants. The debate that is going on is one that should have been held before the referendum, not after invoking Article 50. There is only one reasonable option open to us – don't do it.

In the meantime, those tempted by anti-immigration rhetoric should remember that, however long ago, we are all the products of migration. It is one of the most ubiquitous experiences of humanity. We are all in its debt. George Szirtes put it magnificently.
As for refugees they are, as we were, like leaves blown off a tree, drifting where the wind or sea takes them. But not just leaves. Leaves wither and die and return to earth. Refugees, migrants of all sorts, are also seeds of new growth and always have been. Few of us present here now live in the places where we were born. We too drift and seed. On good soil with a little tending we become part of the landscape. That is our history, our present and, with luck, our future.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Look on my works ... and despair

I haven't been blogging much lately, there have been a lot of other things going on in my life, but that isn't the main reason. I have more or less run out of things to say about the political class. It's awful. And it's tasked with managing the most complex, pointless, and utterly self-destructive policy imaginable. When you are holding a gun to your own head, the sanest thing to do is to not pull the trigger. Instead, in the words of Martin Wolf in the Financial Times,
Remember what has happened. In an unnecessary referendum, a small majority chose an option they could not understand, because it had not been worked out. Thereupon, a new prime minister, with no knowledge of the complexities, adopted the hardest possible interpretation of the outcome. She triggered the exit process in March 2017, before shaping a detailed negotiating position. Some 70 days later, in an unnecessary election, she lost both her majority and her authority.
The result is a dismal failure to even begin to negotiate the best EU deal we can hope for, which would be something merely significantly worse, rather than catastrophically worse, than what we  already have.

On the first anniversary of May becoming prime minister, the tributes have been coruscating. Two stand out. John Crace, inventor of the jibe "Maybot," is cruel, funny and accurate. His conclusion:
In just a year, the Maybot had imploded entirely. It had come to this – from being lauded as the saviour of the Conservative party to begging Labour for some policy ideas. A year in which her true mediocrity had been exposed.
Meanwhile, Ian Dunt resorted to a list. It's long and damning.
On Thursday, we reached the first anniversary of Theresa May's time in Downing Street. During this period she has pursued a hopelessly mangled Brexit strategy, rebranded the Conservative party with hard right-wing nativism, trashed Britain's global reputation and thrown away her own majority in a fit of imperial arrogance. We are unlikely to have to mark her second...

The list of her failures goes on and on. They are moral, political, economic, strategic and presentational. She is a full-spectrum political disaster.
Then there is Labour. When it came to the election, the result was a narrower defeat than expected, aided by the collapse of third party votes and the worst Tory campaign imaginable. Corbyn scrubbed up well. He is now dressed in expensive suits, carefully groomed, and when tieless looks preppy, rather than scruffy. He didn't lose his temper on TV, came over avuncular, but was confined mainly to mass meetings of the adoring. I still can't see any evidence that he he has the ability to be Prime Minister, but I suppose that what really gets to me is the bizarre cult of personality that has been generated around him. This worship is disturbing, it's uncritical, and every objection to his saintliness is met by a tirade of abuse. And the object of this fevered veneration is so vacuous. I mean, what has he actually said of interest? Most of his speeches are content-free rhetoric or vague promises of the impossible. Can anyone say what on earth a "jobs first Brexit" means? It's an endlessly repeated platitude worthy of Theresa May.

The weird thing is that when he says something, like wanting to leave the single market, his fan base don't believe him if it's not what they want. He is a vehicle for people's political fantasies, a symbol of being on the left, rather than the advocate of a coherent political programme. Eventually, this will be found out. Brexit is the most likely cause, but even on a flagship policy like abolishing university tuition fees, they have started rowing back expectations. I suppose being vague on Brexit is a necessary tactic, given that the party is split and the voter base is overwhelmingly pro-remain. But eventually people will begin to notice that on every Parliamentary vote on it, Labour has offered no official opposition to the policy of the Tory right.

I have always felt that Corbyn's past stance on foreign affairs made him unfit to lead the Labour Party. It hasn't turned out to be an obstacle for him as his supporters can't remember the IRA, and even if they don't share his virulent hatred of Israel, they have an antipathy to it. As for his disgusting "friends," they don't seem to make much difference either. The issue cropped up again last week when he shared a pizza with Marcus Papadopoulos, a pro-Assad denier of the Srebrenica massacre (a position Corbyn has flirted with in the past).

Corbyn is often described as a pacifist. He makes his association with peace politics known whenever possible. It sounds nice. But he isn't a pacifist. He isn't even a principled non-interventionist. No, he is an appeaser. It's a long political tradition. It was derided in the 19th Century by working class radicals as being "peace at any price." To avoid war by making concessions to a potential aggressor may be a political necessity at times, but it is morally ambiguous at best. The problem is that if you want to pretend that it is virtuous, then you have to move beyond Orwell's famous observation about pacifism being objectively pro-fascist, to being materially so. Pacifism may refuse to resist evil, but it doesn't pretend that it isn't evil. Appeasers argue that the evil actually have a case, that they are being reasonable, and that our goodwill in conceding their demands will win them over to virtue. It's wishful thinking, and from there it is a small step to become a fellow traveller, apologist, or even an outright supporter. And that's where Corbyn's Irish republicanism and anti-Zionism took him. But the association with the word peace has allowed him to effectively lie about his actions, to the ecstatic joy of his fan base.

So what can you say? In the middle of a deep, self-inflicted crisis, we have domestic politics that is reduced to a contest between Joseph and Neville Chamberlain. It is dominated by cowardice and confusion. It is organised failure. It has to change, but until it does, there is nothing more to do other than to look on in disbelief.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Don't mention the EU

They keep coming. Every day I get sent another adoring meme and article, often from idiotic sources like the Canary, glorifying the achievements of Jeremy Corbyn. I half expect to see one on his latest bowel movements - the holy turd of St Jezza - as an exemplar of his exceptional virtue. I grew up in a tradition that was sceptical of leaders and so I find this outpouring unintelligent, disturbing and nauseous.

However, not one person I know, not a single one, shared his Mirror article from 17 June. I am not surprised as most of my Corbynista friends are firmly pro-EU. Corbyn writes:
We would start by confirming that Britain is leaving the EU. The issue of Brexit is settled...
Leaving the EU will mean freedom of movement will end...
Leaving the European Union means Britain will have a different relationship with the single market.
But jobs and the economy will be our priority, and the final Brexit deal needs to keep the benefits of the EU single market and the customs union.
That means we will seek continued tariff-free access to the European market, with no new non-tariff burdens for British business.
This is mad. Ending freedom of movement means leaving the single market. If we leave the single market, then we cannot keep all the benefits of membership. This has been made perfectly clear from day one. Retaining our current benefits outside the EU is a fantasy. The best that can be hoped for is a deal that will be worse, but not catastrophically so. The only way to get a deal as good as we have currently is to remain members.

What this article is doing is not proposing a 'soft Brexit,' but using soft words to conceal a 'hard Brexit.' It's a commonplace way of arguing and isn't confined to any one political party. Two tricks are the most frequent. The first is over freedom of movement. Corbyn wrote about how it will be replaced:
In its place, we will back fair rules and reasonable management of migration, underpinned by tough action to end the undercutting of pay and conditions by unscrupulous employers and to stop overseas-only recruitment.
Notice anything missing? You probably haven't because it's rarely mentioned. Freedom of movement is a reciprocal right. It isn't just about immigration. If he said, 'in order to bring in new rules to manage immigration we will have to strip all British citizens of their right to live, work, run a business, or retire in any other EU country,' he would be telling the whole truth. But it doesn't sound quite as good does it? Confining the debate to immigration distorts the real meaning of freedom of movement. It only tells half the story.

The second is that people elide between membership of the single market and access to the single market. They are not the same thing. Access to the single market is universal. Anyone can trade into it. Sometimes the terms of trade can be made more favourable by a separate trade deal, but the full benefits are only available to members. Pretending otherwise is deceitful.

And so we are stuck within a pointless debate which all rests on the premise that a narrow majority in a poorly constructed referendum should overrule all other democratic decision making processes, because it represents the permanent and immutable will of the people for all time - even if they change their minds afterwards. This is mad. And as the benefits remain elusive, while the huge costs, the impact on people's lives, the scary economic damage, and the loss of liberties become more apparent, this premise looks more foolish by the minute.

We have a divided country. We have a divided governing party. We have a divided Labour Party trying to appease two divided constituencies of voters. Instead of dealing with realities, we have entered a world of wishful thinking where soft-sounding waffle can magic away reality. We have landed ourselves in an unconscionable mess, and I doubt whether we have a political class with enough courage and intelligence to get us out of it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


After hubris comes nemesis. The schadenfreude of watching May's supreme confidence vanish in a cloud of platitudes was intense. Instead of oblivion, something I expected, Labour is now well placed. Corbyn has shown himself to be a proficient campaigner. Age has softened his image, if not the reality, but elections are all about smoke and mirrors and not details. Labour have had their Dunkirk; a triumphant defeat that is the basis for future victory. But beware of hubris on their part. I want to sound some notes of caution.

1. The obvious – Labour didn't win. They need 56 more seats to even catch up with the Conservatives. It was their third consecutive defeat. They are still a long way behind.

2. To make matters worse, Labour finished third in Scotland, overtaken by the Scottish Conservative Party who had been an irrelevance for decades. Even though there was a recovery for Labour, this points to fragility in its support.

3. Look at the data. This was the best share of the vote the Conservatives have had for thirty years. Yes, this Tory crisis really has been brought about by their best result since 1987. How so? Once again it's down to the arbitrariness of the electoral system. This election saw a return to predominantly two-party voting, particularly in England. The shrinking of support for minority parties has meant that the result in 2017 is more proportional to vote share than previously. If there had been any form of proportional representation in 2015, then the Tories wouldn't have had a majority to lose. The momentum may be with Labour, but the Tory base is also stronger.

4. The Labour vote, as in every election, was not homogenous. It was a coalition of different social and demographic groups, and of differing political outlooks. Though Corbyn's electoral strength was underestimated, the increased Labour vote share also includes those who voted Labour despite it being led by Corbyn.

5. The Conservatives are in control. The DUP despise Corbyn because of his republican sympathies and will always block him. Labour need the Tories to muck it up, which they are more than capable of doing of course, but they may also be shrewd at exploiting openings.

What all this points to is the need for consolidation not triumphalism. I suppose you can excuse celebrations and outbursts of idiocy, but in the end Labour have to be seen as a government in waiting.

The one great issue that a government needs to face is Brexit. It was ignored in the election, despite it being the single most significant event in the last fifty years. It's a bit like cleaning the oven, one of those jobs you keep putting off because it's too unpleasant. Parties are hiding behind the mantra that they will 'deliver the result of the referendum.' No one dares to question whether that decision was actually wise or not (or even deliverable!). Nor do they consider the dissensus rather than consensus that it produced. But what is unforgiveable is that they are completely unprepared for the complexity of the task and reluctant to acknowledge the damage it may cause. May's decision to invoke article 50 and then call an election is a monumental error. It should have been the other way round. The clock is counting down and there isn't a government to head negotiations. If we were serious about leaving, then article 50 should have been invoked only after all the preparatory work had been done.

Labour's position should be clear. Wait and seize the opportunities when they arise. Instead, the leadership went ahead and adopted the position of UKIP. Mirroring Corbyn's utterly stupid call for invoking article 50 immediately after the referendum, they have made it clear that their priority is ending free movement and thus exiting the single market. They have boxed themselves in.

Whether there is a political cost to be paid, who knows? A more sensible stance may appear. I'm not predicting anything. But it smacks of overconfidence and an underestimation of the consequences of the realities of Brexit, while failing to look over their shoulder at the uneasy coalition of voters that have raised their hopes, despite yet another defeat. 

Friday, June 09, 2017

Wrong again

Yes, I got it wrong. Pretty comprehensively wrong. It's a talent I have.

At this point everybody who did get it wrong about the election starts writing pieces about how, although they got it wrong, the fact that they were wrong proves that they were right all along. I can't disappoint the tiny number of readers of this blog.

Over the years I have been banging on about two things. The first is the need for a new and credible left political economy to challenge orthodoxy. The time for it is now. There is an electoral coalition for the reinvention of a neo-Keynesian social democratic settlement.

More recently, I have been saying that the significant demographic divide in politics is generational. The young voted. This is a great moment of hope, because the previous assumption that there was a realignment where a left political economy was tied to social conservatism is wrong. The new generation of voters is socially liberal, pro Europe, and relaxed about immigration.

Now, some caveats.

First, I haven't changed my views of Corbyn, and especially his foreign policy and support for awful movements and regimes. They have been formed over thirty years. There is still a fight to be had over where Labour stands.

Second, this wasn't a victory for Corbyn alone. In fact it wasn't even a victory, he lost. Both the Conservative and Labour votes increased. But it is one of those moments when political change became a real possibility. And the "progressive majority" has returned. Though the country is polarised, a majority didn't vote for the right. This was a success for the Labour Party as a whole. It was a campaign fought locally as well as centrally. Right, left, and centre candidates worked hard and did well. And Labour didn't win, they came close, and they recovered amazingly from a terrible position. Think back to how bad the local election results were just a month ago! Retreating into sectarianism would throw this opportunity away.

Third, I am old. This is a bit of a bugger, but true. And like a lot of older people, I can lapse into pessimism. I don't feel like that today though. I feel that there is an opportunity now, but probably for people younger than me. But if I am old, I am younger than the leadership. This is still an interregnum. What comes next is what matters.

Finally, and this is the most important, there is Brexit. It was the reason for the election and never mentioned. This is an extraordinary constitutional and economic revolution to be undertaken with a flimsy mandate that has just been made flimsier. This is the defining issue. It has the potential to create huge damage. Where is our strategy for that? Ian Dunt put it well before the election:
It is not an elephant in the room. It is a stampede approaching at speed, to which we have stared, shrugged and continued with our little tea party. If historians do bother to assess what happened in this election they will be left aghast at our complacency.
Brexit could wreck everything.

Let's leave the Daily Mash to inject a sense of proportion:
LABOUR leader Jeremy Corbyn has congratulated himself after being beaten by a political idiot.
True, but I'm still smiling. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Half full glasses

The bad managers that I have worked under have generally fallen into two broad types. The first surprised you by their rise until you saw them in interview, where they were smooth, warm, and pleasant. Doubts first arose when you probed beneath the surface and found the deceits, illusions and ignorance. Then they tried to do something and everything fell apart round them, leaving a trail of exasperated staff.

The second rose effortlessly, often by default. They were suggested for posts. People thought them safe choices, solid performers; they seemed to embody stability. They had carefully hidden their lack of capacity behind all the right language and tended to be control freaks, claiming the credit for the work of others and letting little or no light fall on what they really did. They too were destructive.

Both types tend to be disloyal to their colleagues, are ambitious narcissists, and completely lack a sense of humour.

This might sound familiar. Corbyn v May. The election from hell.

Corbyn has shown his impressive qualities as a campaigner. Though he is still only really comfortable in front of large, adoring crowds, he has taken to appearing as a kindly, righteous man in front of the TV cameras. People have warmed to him. He has controlled himself when challenged; his tendency to lose his temper has been curtailed. But then interviewers rarely ask the really difficult questions. He got away with defending his dodgy past alliances with lines about being prepared to deal with people or read articles that he 'profoundly disagreed with.' Nobody followed up by asking precisely who or what he disagreed with. Imprecision permits elision.

(His real ability as a campaigner raises huge questions as to why he was so inept during the EU referendum, making me think that Alan Johnson's charge of sabotage has a great deal of merit.)

As for May, can anyone remember a worse Conservative campaign? The ruthless party of power is doing everything it can to show that it has completely lost the plot. The manifesto offered nothing. May ran on leadership and presented none. The party tried to build a cult of personality around someone bland and inarticulate who offered no human warmth. I used to think that she spoke in platitudes only because she had been trained to. Now I tend to believe that it's all she's able to do. Her stilted delivery shows her to be incapable of spontaneity.

The Conservatives will win of course. They were always going to, despite how hard they have tried to lose it. The polls are contradictory because we are seeing a huge experiment in methodology, mainly over turnout of young voters, giving disparate results. One group of polls shows a narrow Tory lead, and projections that suggest the possibility of a hung parliament. The other group shows a comfortable Conservative lead and a large majority of seats. Not one has shown a Labour lead. Every one has shown a stable Tory vote around the mid 40s, the same share of the vote that gave Thatcher and Blair landslides because of the distorting effect of the electoral system. And even if there is an unprecedentedly high turnout amongst young voters, there aren't enough of them and they are in the wrong place. The highest concentration of young voters is in constituencies that Labour already holds.

Especially early in the campaign, there were comparisons with the election of 1983, but they are false. The differences are profound. The calibre of the two leaders is a given. Foot was a man of considerably more intellectual and political accomplishments than Corbyn, while the comparison between May and Thatcher is risible. Corbyn was the wrong leader with the worst ratings, so May had a head start before she proceeded to show her own failings. But these are superficial disparities. There are three main structural differences. First, Scotland has been lost to Labour. Secondly, the third party vote has collapsed. In 1983 Labour had a three-way fight with the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Finally, it was the split in Labour that gave Thatcher the landslide. 54% of the vote went to the two centre-left parties in 1983. In 2015 something different happened. For the first time in decades more than 50% voted for the right. There is no "progressive majority." I could be wrong, but all the data points to a Tory win.

I am, and remain, Labour of course, just as I am in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union. Obviously, I am in despair about British politics at the moment. I weep at the general lack of ability of the political class. But there are things that cheer me. First, let's all celebrate the demise of UKIP. The threat of a British version of the parties of Wilders and Le Pen was real. Now, it seems to have returned to the fringes where it belongs.

Secondly, the impending death of the Labour Party has been exaggerated. It isn't healthy obviously, but there are signs of life. It has been intellectually moribund for a long while and has polarised around two nostalgias. Both are anachronistic and fictitious views of the past. The one looks back to Attlee, the other pines for the king over the water, Blair. Neither engages critically with the real history of their heroes' conflicts and failures, as well as their concrete and impressive achievements. Both are viewed selectively. Both are the past. However, this is an interregnum. Something is stirring in the parliamentary party. It's predominantly female too. This isn't down to anything specifically about gender.  It's a feature of the decline of the Trade Unions and the rise of the voluntary sector as the source of candidates with a grip on reality, ready to challenge the teachers and lawyers that still dominate.

This is a real social movement. It's doing more than filling in gaps where the welfare state has eroded. It's providing advocacy and employment. There are credit unions fighting off the loan sharks, tenants' associations struggling for housing rights, community development groups, LETS schemes, social entrepreneurship, child care schemes, disability rights groups, women's refuges, the list goes on and on. They are small-scale, participatory, and hugely practical. And they are mainly staffed by women. The politically ambitious amongst them are moving into Labour politics. Their real, grass roots activism contrasts with those that think that being an activist means going to meetings and demonstrations. They are a voice for democratic decentralisation and for participatory democracy. They have roots in the real lives of working class people. I think that this is the basis of a left renewal.

Finally, the hope lies with the young. The generational divide in British politics has never been so stark. The young are overwhelmingly Labour. They are also overwhelmingly pro-EU. There is a contradiction in that Labour has implicitly committed itself to support a hard Brexit and ending free movement. But closing a door can mean different things to different people, it can lock out, but for those looking for something more, it can shut in. This has been an election about Brexit that has never mentioned it. But the realities have not yet hit. Reality tends to change the minds of all but the most ideologically committed. Brexit is an issue that Labour has dodged so far from cowardice. If it is to hold the young, then it must face it.

It's almost like finding optimism in my own demise, but I can see a new "progressive majority" emerging from a different generation. It won't look the same as the old one, but just as Labour faces an excruciating defeat, it promises relief from a bleak future. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Forget part two

Manchester. My adopted city, where I moved forty years ago. A city where the centre was wrecked by an IRA bomb, without casualties. Now the latest place where the most recent variant of a stupid apocalyptic cult has decided to usher in some ridiculous utopia by random killing.

This time of adolescent girls. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Another fine mess part one

I am not sure what I make of this, but Carol Cadwalladr's investigation into barely legal use of data in the EU referendum by the alt-right (which would be better described as the authoritarian right, or even pro-Putin right) is revealing. Above all, it makes it clear that Brexit was one of their central objectives. This was not just a victory for the right, but for a particularly nasty, nationalist authoritarian version.

Her reports are important because once these tactics are revealed and understood they can be countered. Macron did precisely that in the French presidential elections by confounding the Russian hackers seeking to do for Le Pen what they did for Trump.

Brexit and Trump stand as this right's peak achievements. But I'm not pessimistic. With Trump they got lucky. Despite all that was thrown at Clinton, Trump lost. He lost the popular vote significantly. They won because of the historic anomaly of the electoral college, which gave him the presidency. Trump also illustrates another weakness. His presidency is hardly a howling success. These people may be rich and clever, but they are idiots. They are clever at doing stupid things. All they need to stop them is intellectual courage and intelligence. And so I turn to Brexit ... oh.

No, I'm not as optimistic here at all. Both main parties have now committed themselves to a hard Brexit. The moment Labour declared that it would end freedom of movement (rather than use the already existing legal restrictions), political opposition ended. The right had won.

This asks real questions about the quality of both our democracy and our representatives. Cadwalladr writes:
In his blog, Dominic Cummings writes that Brexit came down to “about 600,000 people – just over 1% of registered voters”. It’s not a stretch to believe that a member of the global 1% found a way to influence this crucial 1% of British voters. The referendum was an open goal too tempting a target for US billionaires not to take a clear shot at. Or I should say US billionaires and other interested parties, because in acknowledging the transatlantic links that bind Britain and America, Brexit and Trump, so tightly, we also must acknowledge that Russia is wrapped somewhere in this tight embrace too.
It's ironic that the nationalist right is so globalised in its outlook, but I am concerned with something else. The referendum that supposedly displayed the 'will of the people' was determined by a mere 600,000 voters. That was how close the vote was. And this vote was allowed to overrule the opinions of the government, the opposition, Parliament, business, trade unions, economists, the United States government, the British Commonwealth, and all our strategic allies and trading partners. All wanted us to remain. Those pesky experts, eh? What's worse, this small majority is supposed to be obeyed regardless of the consequences, whatever the settlement with the EU. Brexit has to happen even if it becomes manifestly clear that the results will be, at best, damaging, or, at worst, catastrophic. This is precisely what our politicians have committed themselves to do.

This is madness. Utter madness. If we can find a viable settlement, there is a case for leaving, not that I would necessarily agree. But if not, are our political leaders really going to say, 'We will now commit suicide because you told me to'? It appears so, unless someone can find the political courage to face reality. At the moment I can see none. We will have to wait to see what events bring.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Neo-con imperialist warmonger

At least that's how Peter Kropotkin would be described by sections of the left these days, even though he was a revolutionary anarcho-communist. You see, Kropotkin was one of the leading lights of the anarchist movement who supported the allies in the First World War. I have a chapter about him in this new collection. Of course it is the usual over-priced academic hardback at the moment, so nobody can afford to buy it. Though you can order it for your library.

Most of the movement was anti-war, and Kropotkin is usually condemned, but not by me. My chapter is a defence of his position. There were four main pillars to his argument.

1. France, having been invaded, had a right to self defence and should be supported. Inaction would not be neutral or promote peace, it would aid the aggressor.

2. Prussian militarism had become the organising principle of the united German state and was extremely dangerous. Kropotkin fully anticipated the war, he was expecting German aggression. He felt that if it was not destroyed completely, it would rise again in an even more virulent form.

3. The dreams of pacifists and the liberal peace movement were delusions.

4. Though he shared the socialist analysis of war in general as being the product of capitalism, he felt that, once a war had broken out, people had to make a judgement about this particular war. That meant rejecting the idea of moral equivalence, not seeking a peace that would leave the gains of the aggressor in place, and showing solidarity with the victims of aggression.

This may sound familiar. It should do, because these are precisely the arguments of the anti-totalitarian left when they grappled with the dilemmas of the wars of the early twenty-first century. Little has changed in our thinking since then.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

I meant it ...

... about cats.

And roses as a bonus

I mentioned Brexit once, but I think I got away with it.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Wasting time

Why bother?

A big, expensive legal fight was won against the government and Parliament was given a vote on moving article 50 on exiting the EU. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed to stop the calling of a snap election on the basis of the government's short-term advantage. Parliament had to approve an early election by a two-thirds majority. Great, but only if the opposition doesn't decide to vote to do whatever the government wants. Parliament's power only exists if it is prepared to use it.

Now the right are consolidating their victory by holding an election to give them even greater control, presumably on the grounds that the Labour Party may not remain supine forever. 'So, Mrs May, what was it about a 21% lead in the polls that made you decide that an election was in the national interest?'

A Tory victory is a foregone conclusion. The size of the majority will depend on where the votes are cast and how effective tactical voting will be. But their lead is unassailable. The irony is that May is unimpressive at anything other than delivering platitudes. But once Miliband's ineffective leadership was replaced by Corbyn's destructive incompetence, we were doomed. It's as depressing as it was predictable (and predicted - this isn't hindsight talking).

This will be portrayed as a Brexit election. It isn't. Brexit will only become an issue when the consequences begin to unfold, but by then May will have a free hand. Although in another way, this is all about Brexit. Once again, I will have to get into the habit of agreeing with Tony Blair:
Some say it is to defeat the Tory Right so that she can go for a “softer Brexit”. This is naive. The opposite is true. At present, if she wanted to face down the Tory Right she has a Parliament with a majority to do so. What she doesn’t have is a Parliament that would vote for Brexit at any cost.
For the next couple of years Parliament will be marginalised, all the resources of government will be directed towards mitigating self-harm in the hope that the eventual deal will not be much worse than one we have already. What a criminal waste. And this is a crime which will leave many victims. One day someone will have to step in and clear up the mess, but who and when?

Sod it. From now on I am going to blog about cats.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Right turn

It's a wonderful Greek spring and I am enjoying the good fortune and privilege of being in my house in Pelion. The weather is gorgeous and the trees are in blossom. Cats are lolling about on the patio, stretching and yawning in the sun, occasionally to wake up and insistently demand food.

But there is a cloud on the horizon. At the moment I can come here as often as I like, when I like and as for as long as I like. For some reason, a number of my fellow Brits have decided that my right to do so should be taken away from me. My liberty and that of many others is down to my status as a citizen of the European Union and we are in the process of leaving as a result of a political miscalculation. So please don't tell me to move on, or sneer at me as a "remoaner." Depending on the final settlement, Brexit could hit me hard. I would love to see our departure stopped. It's personal.

Though this isn't just about me. I am upset by the referendum itself for constitutional and political reasons as well. Plebiscites are crude distortions of democracy. The mandate is weak, the majority was slim, and the outcome is highly uncertain, all of which should caution against change, rather than launch us recklessly into it. But above all, as I have been going on about for ages, Brexit is unambiguously a victory for the right.

However you look at it, this is not a win for the left, despite those who are optimistic about what they call a "lexit." Leftists who want to leave tend to make two main arguments. The first is that this was a working class revolt.

Owen Jones summarises and rebuts an argument that he once made:
Since the Brexit vote, the 48% who sought to remain have been demonised as a privileged elite attempting to subvert an authentic working-class revolt. “The working class have spoke!” crowed multimillionaire American citizen John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, recently. The referendum was a clash between the angry “millions of working-class people” and “prosperous middle-class homeowners in London”, declared the Sun. “Remoaners” are a clique formed of “citizens of the world” conspiring against the patriotic British working class, or so the story goes.
The only trouble with this is that, as Jones has spotted, it isn't true.
While Fareham is cast as part of an anti-establishment vanguard, Tower Hamlets – which has prevalent child poverty and two-thirds of whose residents voted for remain – is subsumed into the caricature of a pampered liberal elite. Most working-class Britons under 35 opted for remain, while most middle-class people over 65 voted for leave. Most working-class people who are white went for leave, most working-class people from ethnic minorities went for remain. Consider that the next time the Brexit press imposes its simplistic narrative on a complicated reality. Applying their logic, black supermarket workers and young apprentices form part of the privileged remoaner elite.
Reality is much more complex.

The second argument is based on economics. Forgetting the left's earlier attraction to the idea of 'social Europe' and the European Social Chapter of the Maastrict Treaty, they contend mainly that the EU is a vehicle for the imposition of right-wing economic orthodoxy, regardless of democratic demand, throughout the continent. This isn't without reason and there is nowhere better to see it than in Greece.

The crisis here rumbles on. There are small signs of recovery, but the social costs of austerity are ever-present. Greece's scope for action is limited by membership of the Euro and the flawed construction of the single currency. However, once again, real Greece is not the country of the left's imagination. Growing Greek indebtedness over decades would have resulted in a financial crisis whatever. Endemic corruption, clientelism, and the mess that is the Greek state, with its tangled bureaucracy, are obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in the country. Greeks despair of the system. If it was to avoid economic collapse, Greece would always have needed structural reforms together with the large additional loans, coupled with debt write offs, that it has received from the IMF and EU institutions.

The problem has always been the macro-economic conditions required by by the lenders. They have plunged the country into a deep recession, a spiral from which it struggles to emerge. Keynesians predicted as much. The institutions have been misguided. But would Greece have got a better deal from anyone else? No way. The problem is the global economic consensus. Of course the EU's economic assumptions are based on it. It's a consensus after all. This is what needs to be challenged.

So rather than disengage, wouldn't it be better to support the social democratic left's work to change the EU from within? Well, part of the "lexit" narrative is that the EU cannot, and never will, change. This is an odd contention to make about a dynamic institution that has transformed itself from a coal and steel community of six countries, to a loose union of twenty-eight democratic nations, some with a new common currency, in only sixty years. And again it isn't true. Here are a couple of examples of the type of left thinking taking place in the EU. Wolfgang Kowalsky thinks change is back on the agenda after a hiatus and that we are heading towards a more flexible approach to integration. Whilst Prime have produced a research paper with constructive proposals for a democratic economic policy. Instead of getting involved, leavers on the left have chosen disengagement, which suggests that their nationalism is stronger than their socialism.

No, the right have won. Labour is collapsing into irrelevance, twenty points behind in the polls and supporting Brexit, leaving the half of the country that wanted to remain in the EU without representation. A Conservative hegemony, deeply wedded to economic orthodoxy, stretches ahead of us. The right have succeeded in consolidating power and building their electoral strength. They have had three main successes.

First, they managed to get the referendum held despite the huge indifference of the British electorate. There was no demand for a referendum. Outside a small group of obsessives, nobody was bothered. All opinion polling had Europe as one of the lowest salience issues as this chart makes clear:

People who had never thought about the EU or took our membership as a given were forced to take a position.

Secondly, the right were successful in mobilising opinion because they linked a low salience issue with one with much higher salience, immigration. And in doing so they legitimised a popular xenophobia. Just as the left has had a tin ear for the anti-Semitism in its midst, so the left leavers are resistant to the evidence that popular racism had much to do with the win. They cannot hear what outsiders find loud and concerning. This is one reason why reading some of the polemics of the poet George Szirtes is so illuminating. As a former child refugee he has the ear of the incomer to hear the whispers of the ghosts of the past that the EU was created to lay to rest. This essay is fabulous.
I don’t think demonisation is too harsh a word, in that Leave rhetoric called forth certain demons, or rather that it quite consciously opened the trapdoors where such demons were hiding. It legitimised them. It called forth the firebombers. It called forth those who immediately set upon elderly widows of French and German birth who had lived in the country for decades and taunted them by asking when they were going home. It called forth the teenagers on the Manchester tram who demanded a black American get off it. It called forth the murderer of Jo Cox. 
As is his reflection at the end of a piece on Hungary from February:
Whatever some politicians say, we are citizens of the world whether we admit it or not. We consume and live by that which was once strange and once we close doors and windows we begin to suffocate. The terms in which the EU referendum was conducted extended far beyond normal debate about the movement of peoples, whether refugees or poor workers seeking a better life. They sought and exploited a latent hostility towards the foreign, a hostility that has increased since the decision. What this can lead to is more than a lack of air. It is a kind of aridity that becomes combustible. A few sparks can do it. The conditions for combustibility are already in place in the UK and in other parts of Europe, particularly in the region where I was born, and – especially now – in Trump’s US. Isolationism and patriotism are on the rise, partly as political acts, partly as social mood, exacerbated by whatever means, for political reasons. 
Drop enough sparks on dry ground and a fire starts. We have seen such fires before. The view beyond the cell, as Vas put it, is vital: better still to get out of the cell and out into the fertile world, and become its citizen.
I know that focus group research is plagued by the possibility of sample error, but this is alarming:
When asked what level they would expect to see for immigration after Brexit, the views of leave voters are clear: "zero"; "immigration should be stopped"; "no more East European immigrants"; "as low as it can possibly go". 
And what happens when these totally unrealistic expectations are not met? Will there be an embittered constituency waiting for something more extreme?

This brings me to my final point. Brexit was our alt-right moment. If you are in any doubts read this profile of Arron Banks.

OK, there are many sincere eurosceptic leavers on both the left and right who want nothing to do with this stuff. Also, UKIP and were not the official campaign, though they probably tipped the balance. But Brexit will be hugely disruptive, and disruption is what the alt-right seek to provide the opportunity to lead us into some dark places.

I don't think that they can do it on their own, as Jan-Werner Müller argues in this article right-wing populists need mainstream allies to win. This is what the official Brexit campaign provided in the referendum, but only for the limited purpose of leaving the EU. Their aim is more ambitious, to break up the EU completely. It stands in their way, and particularly in the way of the authoritarian anti-democratic movement. Wilders, Le Pen, Orban, Kaczynski all see themselves as the future and Brexit as a model to follow.

The power centre of this authoritarian and illiberal right is Putin. He has long had his band of faux-left figures, 'useful idiots' like Greenwald, Pilger, and Assange cheering him on, but could more effective alliances be forged in the mainstream? The pro-Trump sycophancy shown by Michael Gove is alarming, but I don't think it will go much further. What has happened though is that this utterly distasteful politics has shaped the agenda in ways I would not have thought possible before.

It's not a happy prospect for our country. Amongst some of the left, nationalist arguments over sovereignty and an economic critique of neoliberalism have combined with the dishonest reporting of the tabloid press to produce a fictional view of the EU as a static bureaucratic monolith, rather than an evolving supra-national organisation and alliance of democracies. We are not only leaving the EU, we are abdicating our responsibilities and abandoning our allies who are attempting to shape the Union and challenge economic orthodoxy. Instead we are retreating into a Tory hegemony, while left leavers dream of social democracy in one country. I rather think that a left turn is more likely within the EU than in Britain.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Theatre of the absurd

So it begins.

Today, we start to leave the EU by accident.

The referendum was called to disarm UKIP and the obsessive right of the Tory Party, and by doing so to secure our place in the EU for good. That went well didn't it?

It might have just about worked until the leavers played the race, sorry, immigration card.

Not that there is a consensus. The majority was small, subsequent polling all points to the country being split half and half, while up to 100,000 people marched through London to demonstrate against Brexit last weekend. Never can a change as fundamental as this have been implemented on such a weak mandate.

A Prime Minister who campaigned to remain has started the process, supported by an opposition who campaigned to remain, and with the backing of a vote in Parliament, the majority of whose members consider this to be an act of folly. The principles of representative democracy have been abandoned.

To be fair, if all goes well in negotiations, given enough expertise (which we don't have), given plenty of time (which we don't have), given adequate experienced staff (which we don't have), and given politicians who know what they are doing (which we don't have), we might just about get away with a deal that is only slightly worse than the one we already have as members. Otherwise, the risks are huge. This is a change that hasn't be thought through and for which we are entirely unprepared. There wasn't even any contingency planning.

I can't help thinking that this is a colossal, reckless error and, even worse, a betrayal of the future of the younger generation who voted overwhelmingly - in all classes and all regions - to remain. This is the generation who will have to bear the costs and lose the opportunities they had expected, which have been taken away from them against their will.

Another fine mess you got us into, Mr Cameron.

Monday, March 20, 2017


"If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring," as the old song goes. Well, it's the first day of spring today. The clouds are low, a cold wind is blowing, and the rain is slashing down. The singer wants every day to be like this? Really? Of course the symbolism of the first day of spring is that it marks the end of winter and the promise of summer to come. So, the song offers us a promise never to be fulfilled. Oh joy.

Come on Ryley, it's only a song. But it got me thinking. It comes from the musical Pickwick and is a political speech, a manifesto sung by Samuel Pickwick, an ingenue mistaken for a political candidate. Perhaps it's rather an apt metaphor.

The question it raises is, 'when is it right for people to impose their will on others?' Quite clearly, I want every day to be mid summer. I don't want to be condemned to live the rest of my life in vile weather like today. There isn't a simple answer. The current fashion seems to be that the majority, however small, of voters in a referendum have the right to impose their will on everybody else.

I moan about having my EU citizenship being taken away from me against my will, Scottish independence is being raised again, but one of the worst aspects of the EU referendum is that EU citizens, legally resident in the country for many years, didn't even have a vote. They are at risk of losing everything and weren't allowed a voice. Others took away their automatic right to live here and now they can only rely on others to try and protect them. As for Gibraltar, the forgotten question, around 90% of its citizens voted to stay in the EU. This is because their entire economy is dependent on an open border with Spain, guaranteed by membership. Yet, they are to be wrenched out of the EU by the votes of people in England. I could go on and on.

This isn't just a question about Brexit, though I think it is a terrible mistake, it is about the nature of government and democracy. It is why I would always defend representative democracy against a plebiscitary alternative. I am not an individualist absolutist. There are clear cases when people's ideas and desires should be overruled for the collective good, but the mechanisms for doing so matter.

I don't have good answers for a blog post. While the case against vesting all power in a dictatorial ruler or an oligarchy is manifest, crude majority rule also has dangers and is a flawed model of democracy. In the meantime, roll on summer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The state of the nation

"Now is not the time" for a referendum on Scottish independence. So says the queen of the platitude.

So what's this all about? After all, it's only a short time since the last referendum. Actually, it's pretty simple. I've worked it all out.

We have two politicians going head-to-head who owe their position to being on the losing side in a referendum. One supported the losing side, but when the leader of the losers resigned because he lost, she took over on the basis of implementing the winning decision despite campaigning against it. The other lost, but, because of the popularity gained through losing, trounced the winning side in the subsequent election where the losers emerged victorious over the winners.

Now, there is very little enthusiasm for another referendum, it's unwanted by most. But we have to remember that the reason for the call to hold an unwanted referendum is the unwanted result of another referendum that wasn't really wanted either.

This is all about taking back control. For the English loser who won, taking back control used to mean taking back control from the European Union. Now it also means taking back control from the Scottish institutions that were set up in order to allow Scotland to take back control from the UK. They can't have that control, because they must take back control from the EU along with the rest of the UK, even though they voted not to. So the winning Scottish loser now wants to take back control from the UK government so that she doesn't have to take back control from the EU and reckons she can do it by holding an unwanted referendum. The English winning loser thinks we are stronger together in the union of the United Kingdom, making it easier to take back control from the European Union, where we are not stronger together even though she campaigned on a slogan saying that we were. The Scottish loser who won thinks that we are stronger together in the European Union, but not in the union of the UK, because she will be forced to take back control from the EU, which she doesn't want to do.

It's clear. This is consensus politics. Both agree that they want to stay in a union, just not the same one.

It's the will of the people.

(Er ... can't we just go back to being a representative democracy instead? Please.)

Be happy, it's an order!

Playing away

Forget the cloth cap image, Rugby League has always been innovative and has led the way only for others to follow and claim credit. Its holy grail has always been expanding the game. Often this has resulted in failure, but these days the sport is focusing on more organic growth, with new teams starting in the lower leagues and progressing on merit. Geography has never been an obstacle. This year Toronto Wolfpack (yes that is the Toronto in Canada) are playing in Championship 1 alongside teams like Barrow and Hunslet, as well as other clubs trying to build the game North and South.

Last year, it was the turn of the South of France when Toulouse Olympique XIII joined and won promotion at the first attempt, joining Swinton in the Championship. They played each other at the weekend. What an opportunity. I and a couple of hundred others grasped it, struggled with an air traffic control strike and made it over to Toulouse. Having got, nothing was going to stop a memorable weekend.

The stadium is in Blagnac, a very bourgeois suburb. It's so quiet on a Saturday evening that you felt you had to whisper as you walked through streets whose life had been choked out of them by stern respectability. Then, in late afternoon on a hot spring day, Swinton fans arrived from the city centre. Few had stopped drinking from the moment they arrived in France, most had sung continuously. The barbarians had arrived. Amiable, humorous, warm spirited, and boisterous barbarians. It was brilliant.

Then on to the match where the noise was non-stop, Swinton supporters amongst the 2,300 crowd trying, and often succeeding, in making more noise than the French brass band in the stand. It was a superb game, where a fine Toulouse side were taken very close, only winning 36-28 on successful goal kicks after both sides had scored seven tries apiece.

You can watch the whole game here:

The crowd dispersed for more drinking, dining on cassoulet, and sightseeing on the following days. It was a celebration of our international Rugby League family, of the delights of Europe, and of the general friendship that sport can engender. For me, they were four unforgettable days in two beautiful cities - we took an extra day in Carcassonne. There was sumptuous cuisine, historical sites, great art, and sporting comradeship all rolled together.

And as fans bumped into each other as they wandered round the town, they all said they same thing. Will we be going to Toronto?

Friday, March 03, 2017

Devilish details

I was never a Blairite. It wasn't just his political economy, I also disliked what I saw as the vacuity of much of his discourse, the strange, verbless syntax, the corny soundbites, and his peculiar halting delivery. Then he gave his speech on the EU. It used the same formulas, but it was startling because it was excellent. It made me think how much our political discourse has deteriorated since his heyday. Instead of the dry platitudes of May, the false bluster of Johnson, and the delusional rambling of Trump, Blair did something unusual in a political speech. It may have been partisan, but it presented clear facts and asked questions that needed answering.

The response was predictable. Rather than deal with the issues of substance, his speech was deluged in ad hominems. The left went on about Iraq. The right sneered. The worst was Boris Johnson who dealt with the arguments by telling people not to listen to them. But what about the questions Blair raised? Did anyone try and answer them? If they did, I didn't see any replies. This is the problem. The trouble with Brexit is that it's scary. Look at the data and it is clear, Brexit will be expensive to implement and the gains are hard to see. So let's avoid all that unpleasantness and castigate the "remoaners" for their negativity.

This reluctance to look at the facts is on all sides. Take this from here. It's from an article by a natural Blairite and a remain voter. He quotes a bizarre statement from Wes Streeting that voting not to trigger article 50 would have led to riots in the street, and then he throws in this:
Here’s a rallying cry from Jonathan Rutherford that I want to share;"Instead of hedging its bets, lamenting Brexit, and echoing each dire forecast of impending disaster Labour must stand foursquare for the labour interest in the restoration of a self-governing, trading nation."
 There are obvious objections. I thought we already were a "self-governing, trading nation." And what if the dire forecasts are right? Standing foursquare behind a mistake isn't a very good idea. But mainly, the quote is meaningless. Again look at the data. Blair did.
We will withdraw from the Single Market which is around half of our trade in goods and services. We will also leave the Customs Union, covering trade with countries like Turkey. Then we need to replace over 50 Preferential Trade Agreements we have via our membership of the EU; for instance with Switzerland. So, EU-related trade is actually two thirds of the UK total. This impacts everything from airline travel, to financial services to manufacturing industry, sector by sector.
So, how do we deal with this problem, who do we trade with? How do we overcome the loss of our membership of our main market? How do we do it with a productivity gap and trade deficit? And how can it serve the labour interest? These are real problems. Surely they should be discussed before leaping into the dark? There's nothing about any of this in the "rallying cry."

Ah, but then there's the 'will of the people.' That always gets pulled out. It's OK, don't worry about the details, because 'the people have decided.' 'They have spoken.' 'Their verdict is in.' Never mind a discussion of the quality of that decision or how well informed it was, let's look at the figures. 17 million voted out, 16 million voted remain, 13 million didn't vote at all, and millions more were not on the register. This wasn't even a majority. It was the largest minority. Now it is often sensible, customary, and democratic to vest power in the largest minority (though there are exceptions - Germany in 1933 springs to mind), but to describe this as somehow being the immutable will of the British people as a whole is absurd. I could accept the result as the starting point of a long deliberative and consultative process, but not as a blank cheque to the government to do whatever it likes. What politicians are really doing is hiding behind the vote to avoid talking about the substance.

Then there's the Labour Party's dilemma.They nominally supported remain, yet two thirds of their constituencies voted leave. What do they do? Their instinct is to protect what they hold. They must fall in line with their voters. All very commendable - except, as the vastly experienced psephologist, John Curtice pointed out, around two thirds of Labour voters voted remain, even in those constituencies that voted out. The referendum result was carried mainly by voters of other parties. It was based on the support of affluent, middle class areas. This gives Labour a profound problem, but not the one they think they have

In one sense Labour's timid position, to abandon policy and principle, and whip its representatives into line to support a hard Brexit, is thoroughly Blairite. Accommodate to a Conservative settlement and privilege one section of your support over another on the grounds that they 'have nowhere else to go,' is exactly what New Labour did. The weakness is that in order to win now Labour needs both. This points to a different strategy. I fear that if Brexit goes badly, the party has put itself in a position where it will have no credibility to criticise and propose an alternative direction. If it goes well, something I find unlikely, Labour will get no credit. Safety may well prove to be a lose/lose strategy.

When will we realise? This is a victory for the right. A big victory. Look at the voting figures. The last general election was one of the few times in post-war history when the parties of the right gained more than 50% of the vote. Brexit was predominantly the cause of right-wing obsessives and the Conservative press. This is our reactionary moment. But look again. It's a rebellion of the old. The young don't share it. It will pass.

So where should Labour stand? Should they embrace the present or gamble on the future? Who then should Labour stand with? The future or the soon to be past? That's their dilemma.

What all this shows is that if we rely only on slogans, conventional wisdom, clever journalistic phrases, or ideological biases, we can get things badly wrong. They make complexity seem simple, and the difficult easy. We have to look at the data. This is the hard, material reality that will decide what will actually happen. At the moment there is little comfort to be had from it for either side, which is presumably why all are lapsing into public expressions of wishful thinking.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Against conventional wisdom

This is a fine start to an excellent piece by Jan-Werner Müller:
Asked recently what liberals could learn from the annus horribilis 2016, the historian Timothy Garton Ash responded that they should beware of groupthink and conventional wisdom.
Absolutely. Müller does precisely that, writing against a modern domino theory of right-wing populism. He doesn't minimise the growth of right-wing populism, he simply states the obvious point that it cannot win on its own.
At last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the conventional wisdom was that a Brexit vote and a Donald Trump presidency could not possibly happen. This year, it was taken as given that an unstoppable populist wave is rolling across the west, a wave that will wash away political elites in upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Yet this image completely fails to capture a simple but crucial fact: nowhere have populists won majorities without the collaboration of established conservative politicians.
Trump won because he was the official Republican Party candidate. Brexit would not have happened if the campaign had centred around Farage alone. He needed the legitimacy of mainstream Conservative politicians, Johnson and Gove, supported by decades of anti-EU agitation by the Tory tabloid press. The wild hyperbole about Trump being a fascist is completely off target. After all, there is a long tradition of anti-rational, authoritarian right wing thought to draw on, other than fascism. But there is one point where the comparison with Hitler holds. Hitler could not have come to power on his own. The Nazis did not and could not win a majority. In what was arguably the worst mistake in history, Hitler was placed in power by mainstream politicians who underestimated him and thought they could use him for their own ends.

The big question is whether conservatives will repeat their errors. The way the Republican Party has begun to accommodate itself to the new presidency does not give hope. Neither did the sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg, dressed as always as if he was in the 1940s, repeating Trump's lies on Channel 4 news give me any reason to doubt that our current dismal crop of politicians are perfectly capable of making the same mistake and persuading themselves that the grotesque are respectable.

And while all this is going on there has been an astonishing neglect of the events in Romania. The mass protests there are pro-EU, contemptuous of conspiracy theories, and thoroughly democratic. They are the antithesis of right wing populism. They tell another part of the European story. As does this intriguing article by Catherine Fieschi. In concluding that Le Pen is unlikely to win the French presidency, she spots something else:
 My work with focus groups across France suggests something is shifting, some of it manifesting as support for the FN but also in the green shoots of a new more positive outlook, a new decentralised, local entrepreneurialism. In no way should we underestimate the FN’s capacity to mobilise – it is a threat. But as things stand, renewal may emerge in other, more hopeful ways.
Europe is not lost. Despite Hungary, despite Poland, a union of European democracies can thrive.

A second piece of conventional wisdom is that this populism means that we have to have a conversation about immigration. Chris Dillow thinks otherwise.
In fact, there’s a positive reason not to want a debate about immigration. Ms Cooper is an economist and so should know that everything carries an opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of debating immigration is high. Our time and cognitive bandwidth is limited, so time spent debating migration is time spent being silent about other questions. 
From this perspective, debating immigration serves a reactionary function, as it silences debate about another question: is capitalism today best serving people’s interests? Debating immigration encourages the idea that immigrants are to blame for stagnant real wages and poor public services, and deflects attention from the possibility that the causes of these lie instead in secular stagnation. 
What Labour should be doing therefore is demanding – and instigating – a debate about how best to increase growth, wages and living standards. We should be asking not what to do about immigration but what to do about capitalist stagnation?
It's ironic, it became commonplace to blame jihadi terrorism on western foreign policy as if the terrorists faced no choice or agency in their decision to commit murder. Now, the same habit of thought is being applied to working class racism. People are being stripped of their agency. Racism thrives in conditions of alienation, but is just as prevalent amongst the wealthy suburbs. It's daft to see its causes as purely economic, though it is convenient to confine our recognition of it to a single class. That doesn't mean that economics can't ameliorate racism's appeal, but it shouldn't mean that we must pander to it.

This is a genuine problem for the left. It has lost its ability to speak for and to working class people. This long and thoughtful article from Julian Coman is well worth reading. It's full of ironies. The complaints that underpinned a strong working class leave vote had nothing to do with the EU. In Rochdale, for example, explicit racism was aimed at an earlier generation of migrants from South Asia rather than Eastern Europeans, while their laments about the decline of their town centre apply equally to high streets, in rich and poor areas alike, across the country. Structural change, some of it unavoidable, has been poorly managed by successive governments. Communities have been neglected. Regions have been allowed to decline. Ordinary people have borne the cost. They voted to leave the EU despite European funding being one of the few sources of investment in their areas.

Coman quotes Marc Stears:
“New Labour explicitly did a deal with the devil – it said, ‘Look, we’ll leave neoliberal policies alone because we’ll be able to cream off enough money to redistribute adequately.’ So you could generate support for the public services by being very hands-off with market forces, but then redistributing through the state.” The achievements of New Labour in re-investing in the NHS and renovating crumbling schools were the fruit of this bargain. But, says Stears, there was a darker side to the project. 
“The big problem with the model was that the Labour hierarchy grew to have disdain in high places for the people who were not happy with that settlement. People who were miserable at work because they were being treated badly by some corporate power; or people working in a public sector that was increasingly marketised and target-driven; or people whose communities were changing and felt aggrieved at the emergence of clone towns and high streets that lost all their identity.” 
The crash brought an uneasy compromise to an end. “If economic times are good and you are getting a fancy new GP surgery, you may feel you can put up with the lack of control at work, or the nature of the high street and so on. But when that improvement in the public realm comes to a shuddering halt, as it did in 2008, then this deal is no deal at all. And you get the populist revolt that we’ve seen.” 
For Ukip, Donald Trump and other rightwing populist forces on the rise, the aftermath to the crash offered a golden opportunity to fuse xenophobic nationalism with provincial and regional discontents that have been simmering for years. But the response, says Stears, cannot be to wave the anger away as part of an “age of unreason”. Seeing off the likes of Farage depends on finding a vision of work, place and community that can speak to the wider concerns of those Nissan workers in Sunderland, not a return to the status quo ante.
I think he's right, but it is not enough to speak to wider concerns, it is equally important to talk with the concerned - and to listen to them and negotiate with them. Wigan's MP, Lisa Nandy, was interviewed for the  piece and was despairing at the way policies have been imposed in the past without discussion with those most affected. It's very worthwhile listening to her recent talk on the future of the left below, not least because she doesn't wish away the difficulties.

The result is that I agree with Chris Dillow's sentiment, but not wholly with his conclusion. We do need a conversation, but not one about how to appease atavistic sentiment. It's a conversation that should not be held in isolation. It's about how we build better communities, manage them, and democratise - really let people take back control. And, at the same time, to vigorously oppose racism in all its guises. It comes down to looking at things in a different way. If we do, we can see the instinct Fieschi saw in her French focus groups. This is a conversation that gives Labour a future.

Finally, we have just witnessed one of the most dismal failures of parliamentary democracy. It took a private individual to go to court to ensure that Parliament, not government, had control over the decision to initiate the process of leaving the European Union. It was a futile effort as Parliament capitulated and duly handed all the power back to the government to impose their interpretation of the result. It marked the nadir of Corbyn's inept leadership of the opposition, as Labour, a few honourable rebels aside, duly voted with the government to give it an overwhelming majority. The capitulation of the pro-European Tories was just as shocking, with only Kenneth Clarke voting against the government. We had the extraordinary spectacle of the majority of MPs of both main parties, who had voted and campaigned to remain, and who viewed leaving the EU as potentially catastrophic, voting to trigger Article 50. We saw both parties whip their members into voting against their decades-old official policies on Europe. Why? Well, it was because of the "will of the people," another piece of conventional wisdom.

I would not be impressed with an A level student who argued that there was a homogenous popular will. I would be even less impressed if the student said that a narrow majority of those that voted, a minority of the electorate as a whole, constituted a consensus binding parliament and government in perpetuity. A C Grayling, in his typically overwrought style, makes a good point. The outcome of the referendum was solely the result of the rules applied. If the rules as to who could vote were the same as those for the referendum on Scottish independence, then it is highly probable that remain would have won. What I would add that even without a wider franchise, if it had been held under the same rules as the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1979, leave would have lost as they failed to reach the threshold of winning the support of 40% of the electorate.  This survey suggests that a referendum held today would produce the opposite result. Perhaps, but given the margins of error of all surveys, we cannot be sure. The one thing that it does show is that the nation is still sharply divided, there is no consensus, let alone a single will of a people who split 50/50 on the issue.

MPs have failed in their primary duty, to act as representatives of their constituents and of the national interest as they see it, not once but twice. They not only voted against their consciences on Article 50, they also abandoned their democratic duties by voting to hold the referendum in the first place, giving over a complex and vital question to the uncertainties of a plebiscite. It was a critical failure.

These three issues point to choices about the democracies we want. To choose to delegitimise the populist, authoritarian right; to devolve and democratise politics at the local level; and to strengthen representative democracy. Taken together they are the foundations of a programme for a revived democratic left. It is one that I would want to see flourish in Britain and within a European Union of which the United Kingdom remained a proud member.