Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Notes on Naked Attraction

We've had occasion to discuss willies and fannies on this blog, so it was only a matter of time before a programme came along and did the same. Naturally, it had to be ever-so-edgy Channel 4, and the presenter couldn't be anyone but their veteran of in-house sex shows, Anna Richardson. Naked Attraction is a dating show and works like this. The contestant is surround by six booths which gradually reveal the person inside. The twist is the reveal works from the bottom up, so we see their bits 'n' bobs before seeing their face and hearing them speak. Once the bodies are whittled down to two, the contestant gets their kit off so the viewers can check their naked bods out too. S/he then makes her pick and off on a date they go. It's enough to make Kenneth Williams blow a gasket.

What to make of it then? Some thoughts:

1. It's very of the moment, isn't it? C4 are always the terrestrial telly channel happiest displaying people in their birthday suits, though BBC2 gave them a run for their money in the early 90s. Naked Attraction wouldn't be happening if the channel hadn't already blazed a trail with reality TV. From the 'classical' phase of Big Brother (series 1-6 IMO) and mutating into all sorts of fly-on-the-walls and "real life" TV since, these shows laid bare the characters of real people who, for whatever reason, were fame hungry enough to put themselves in front of the cameras. A certain kind of nakedness has therefore been entertainment currency for the best part of two decades. Then just as interest in Big Brother was winding down, C4 moved into a wave of sex education programming that perhaps, for the first time on British TV, showed extreme close ups of genitalia. This was expanded on with vary degrees of gross through Embarrassing Bodies, which sometimes featured horrible ailments afflicting the nether regions. But Naked's immediate antecedent is the notorious 2013 Danish show, Blachman. Dubbed by the Daily Mail of all papers as "the most sexist show ever", it involved the titular host (imagine Toby Young as an X-Factor judge) sharing his sofa with a male guest and critiquing the body of a woman standing naked before them. Naked does exactly the same, but the conversation with Anna is designed not to humiliate but explore what the contestant likes, be it a tight bum, abs, curvyness, chunky legs, etc.

2. The other key context is our ever-present friend, the internet. We've talked about the ubiquity of porn heap aplenty on this blog, so for our purposes it's enough to note it's never been more readily accessible, had as huge an audience, and influenced mainstream culture to the extent it has and is doing now. You have sex, or at least the digitally mediated depiction of it always on tap. Against this backdrop is the simultaneous explosion in internet dating. Originally premised on matching profiles and getting to know someone a bit through the exchange of messages about, well, whatever, the epidemic of (unwanted) dick pics and the rise of your Grindrs and Tinders marked the mainstreaming of hooking up. Naked takes that further by putting what's hidden away up front, and letting what is usually up front come second. It's more or less the broadcast equivalent of ads in old contact magazines, but without the sleaze and with a dose of light hearted fun. Naked is the dating show perfect for this cultural moment.

3. Do we have to talk about surveillance of the body? I'm afraid so. Someone is always watching you, but it isn't Orwell's Big Brother. On the way from the train station to work, I must appear on at least a dozen CCTV cameras (and these are the ones I've been able to clock). This is pretty unremarkable. That's life in most towns and cities. Surveillance, however, is deeply rooted in Western cultures and has been so for quite some time. The monitoring of celebrity bodies in the press and magazines inculcates habits of surveillance among ourselves. They provide sets of standards by which our bodies are viewed and judged, whether we subscribe to or reject that criteria, and by our perceptions of others are filtered. Naked is very much within this tradition. The bodies on show in the debut episode were within a range of 19 to 32 years old, were multiracial, but did not differ significantly. They were slim, chiseled, and slightly full. They were waxed, shaved, trimmed. Tattooed and not, and, continuing with C4's disability acceptance theme, one of the guys had a prosthetic leg. The size of the willies, the shapes of the vag, the contours of the stomach, the tautness of the chest, the camera captures each almost as objects of contemplation and, perhaps for some viewers, yardsticks of comparison. Contestant comments were along the lines of too big, too curvy, and so on. The question is will the show stick with youthful bodies. are the over 35s allowed to get their kits off and display all? And it being Channel 4, will there be (please, no!) a celebrity version?

4. The reactions on the part of those not picked were quite funny and rather telling, if one accepts the brittle masculinity critique of contemporary displays of manliness. One guy who got rejected because his willy was too big moaned afterwards "But I'm a really nice person." Another bloke given the heave ho told the camera it was okay because he didn't fancy the contestant and she had ugly tattoos on her legs. And the last bloke, a 30-something Jesus look-a-like was almost in tears as he could believe his not being picked by the bi contestant who chose two women over him. Others came away with a spring in their step. One young lad was gleeful that his arse had been praised as a particularly fine specimen. Just don't show it off in a g-string. How future contestants will respond to body critiques will be interesting, Are we going to see more affronted men act all arsey?

5. All this said, I thought Naked was going to be awful. It wasn't.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

You Can't Crowdfund the Centre Ground

I'm old enough to remember when internet utopianism was a real thing. Back in the good old days of dial-up, Netscape, and Geocities, there was a sense the emerging global network of computers would call forth a new sensibility informed by peace, tolerance, and lovely things. Self-styled homesteaders on the electronic frontier knocked off ten-a-penny manifestos declaring the independence of cyberspace (as we cringingly used to refer it to), the freedom of the individual, and a new economy modelled on free association and reciprocity. How did that work out? Today, internet traffic is dominated by a few massive corporations whose profits ponce off user generated content and the big data sets these audiences generate. Unreason has a huge following. For example, yesterday I encountered a video with tens of thousands of views that, in all seriousness, claimed the Moon was fake because in the daytime "we can see blue sky through it". Ridiculous numbers of people hang on celebrities every posting. People use the tools we have not to make connections, but to post selfies, cat pictures, and what's on their dinner plates. And there is the never-ending spectre of internet abuse and web-based harassment. Sounds grim.

Trying to grab back a slice of that utopianism, we have the just launched More United. Billing itself as the UK's first crowdfunded political instrument, it aims to harness the power of the internet to channel monies to election candidates. Those set to receive the cash are "moderate, progressive" candidates who sign up to MU's five key principles. If politics did scout badges, this is pretty much what you have here. Respecting and celebrating diversity, protecting the environment, international cooperation and EU loveliness, empowering citizens, and, as they put it, being for "a fair, modern, efficient market based economy that closes the gap between rich and poor and supports strong public services".

The last is a strange principle to hang your creds on. For one, the sentence is entirely incoherent. Markets are engines of innovation and growth, but only because they're chaotic, concentrate wealth in a few pair of hands where a strong, interventionist state is absent, and are founded on exploitation. That isn't a value judgement, it's a simple fact that those employed to produce commodities only receive in their wage or salary a small portion of the wealth their activity generates. By any measure, surely the hallmark of any progressive person would see them deeply uncomfortable about such a state of affairs. So there is that. And then there's the curious mention of markets. It's a bit odd because, surely, it's an unnecessary adjective. A "modern, efficient economy" would have worked just as well. Its inclusion here and its positioning as the first of the five principles is a deliberate choice. It's designed to make sure those frightful Corbynites are kept at arms length so they too can be written off as awful extremists, as something our nice, nice MU people can define themselves against.

Moving on to the initiative's patrons, well strike me down, if it isn't the great and the good. The hip young gunslingers of London's tech city rub shoulders with a couple of London-based liberal heroes, London-based do-gooders, and London-based journos. There's an underlying something uniting them all I can't quite put my finger on ... And so there we have it, nothing at all to dissuade the casual cynic that this is anything other than a nice establishment outfit pushed by nice establishment people to fund nice establishment candidates.

There are two things that interest me about this initiative. First off, MU aims to be a cross-party movement to fund candidates who have broadly the same politics - as if too much similarity between the politicians doesn't partly explain the mess we're in. Fine, if you want to throw money at liberalish Tories, liberalish Labourites, and, um, the LibDems that's your business. Except, that is, should you happen to be a member of one of those parties. I cannot speak for our blue and yellow friends, but Labour takes a dim view of its members backing and supporting other candidates. Should MU decide to throw money at a candidate who happens to stand against Labour at an election, by participating in the crowd funding you're out on your ear. And rightly so. Parties aren't for jolly debates, they're about interests. Supporting anything other than a Labour candidate is, to put it bluntly, setting yourself against the interests of the labour movement. Feel free to do so, but you can't do that from inside our tent. I hope Jess Phillips MP, who's reportedly signed up to MU, gives this some thought.

The more interesting point is what MU represents, or thinks it represents. It aligns itself with the folks who went on the polite pro-EU demo after the Brexit result, and those digging deep to buy the The New European. The metro middle class types are its target market. People who think they're above and removed from the tribalism and crudities of party politics. Unfortunately for them they've misread the situation. The referendum has sparked off a mass politicisation that is, despite the bureaucratic heroics of its NEC, finding its expression in the Labour Party. People are pouring in. And all the other parties have seen an uptick in their membership fortunes too. After decades of decline, you might say we're seeing the return of the political party. Hence the people who would ordinarily be most receptive to a campaign of this kind are moving into active engagement. MU's model is premised on a politics that is done by politicians. It treats with people at the level of interested observers, and therefore comes to the scene some 18 months too late.

A less charitable reading might be that this is a liberal, middle class manifestation of the stop-the-world-we-want-to-get-off market previously cornered by UKIP. Frightened by an apparently insurgent hard right (but oblivious to its limited shelf life), and bewildered by a left insurgency that would like to see the back end of well-meaning Labour MPs just like them, they're clinging to a centre ground bending and twisting all over the place. Without an analysis or understanding of what's happening to British politics, their fate is to launch empty initiative after empty initiative in the hope of making things better and nicer, their illusions about what's going on reinforced from within the safety of the metro media bubble. They're the Jehovah's Witnesses of politics - they eschew participating fully in the messes of modern life in the hope they'll ride Armageddon out.

Except it's already upon them. The political world they know has ended and something new is up for grabs, and they've placed themselves in the right position to ensure the influence they exert over what's coming next will be negligible. Good.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

On the Nintendo Classic Mini

I didn't have time to reflect on the two big video game news stories of the last week or so. Interestingly, this blog's occasional bête noire, Nintendo, is at the centre of both. First was the gaming phenomenon of the year and probably the decade - the ubiquitous Pokémon Go. And the other is ... the sort of re-release of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Excuse me, what? We've had occasion to scratch our heads at some of Nintendo's bizarre business decisions, so on the face of it putting out a system that turns 33 this year seems to lie in that tradition. And yet, it also makes perfect sense. Dubbed the Nintendo Classic Mini, what's being released isn't the endearingly unreliable breeze block of old, but a compact plug-in and play. No blowing on cartridges or wiggling them about in the hope of getting the bloody thing working, just wire it up and you're good to go.

Retailing at an as yet undecided figure (thanks to Brexit, likely to be a wheelbarrow of used twenties), buyers have the choice of some 30 built-in games. There are titles here that defined the NES and will be widely known - your Marios, Zeldas, Metroid, and so on. There's a handful of key third party games as well. Mega Man 2, Ninja Gaiden (Shadow Warriors to us PAL people), and Castlevania are well known and notorious in equal measure. There's some filler. Why Ice Climber and Galaga are there is something of a mystery. Tecmo Bowl was a well-received and popular American footy title over there, but I can't see it attracting many plays from UK purchasers of the Mini. I suppose Donkey Kong had to be on there (yawn), but why did Nintendo decide to license Super C over Contra (Probotector for us)? Perhaps the original game is too much of a money spinner for Konami on the virtual console. And there's a couple of titles that never made it over here, namely the original Final Fantasy and Star Tropics. RPG-tastic.

Okay, for sad sacks like me who are only truly comfortable playing video games from yesteryear (so much for the professed accelerationism), this could be a worthwhile purchase. Not all the NES games available on the Mini are easy to find or inexpensive to pick up. You'll find seven of these among my stack of carts, and I'm not willing to blow silly money on say Castlevania, which can go for over a hundred quid boxed and complete. Then again, I'm in the niche retro game market, and while it's of a size sufficient to support Retro Gamer magazine, specialist markets, and an ecosystem of independent stockists of old stuff, it alone probably isn't big enough for the Mini.

In America where, obviously, the retro scene is bigger, there's a larger core audience receptive to something like this. Lest we forget, the NES had the US video game scene locked down for years in the late 1980s. Beyond the retro freaks Nintendo is well positioned to pluck at the nostalgic heart strings of gamers who grew up with their machine. It could be one of those purchases "for the kids" that mum and dad end up spending Christmas Day playing, or something like that. And I'm sure the Mini will do well there. In Europe, which was never properly conquered by Nintendo, it's slightly different. The home computer formats, then Sega, then Sony carried all before them. In addition to retro folks, the Mini might appeal to younger gamers into their video game history and, ugh, hipsters. But enough for it to be considered a success?

As I've suggested previously, it's now possible to feel nostalgic about how we used to do nostalgia. Before the advent of popular streaming services, playing old games and digging out old albums often demanded a rummage through the loft or under the bed. This is exemplified in Umberto Eco's 2004 novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona. To help rebuild his memory, the lead character spends almost the entire book turning his grandfather's loft upside down to dig out the old comics and magazines he grew up with. Now, he'd just have to search for a few phrases and the PDFs of those old strips are at the end of a mouse click. Nostalgia then was dependent on a certain level of inaccessibility. Now, effectively, we're in the eternal present. Everything can be listened to, watched, and played as and when. Nintendo's Mini allows for the accessible to be a little more accessible by providing a reliable iteration of its classic machine. No loading difficulties. No hunting high-and-low for classic carts. No extra virtual console purchases necessary. It makes the convenient even more convenient, and adds to the effacement of nostalgia old-stylee. If you're vaguely into old games, and the price turns out to be okay, you too can do your bit in helping this process along.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Nuclear Nuance

A guest post from my friend and comrade, Trudie McGuinness. She is a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum and sits on the International Policy Commission. In 2015, Trudie stood as Labour’s Parliamentary Candidate in Staffordshire Moorlands. Here she gives a flavour of the discussions on the IPC.

You are a leadership-defying Blairite war-monger who is happy to nuke children. Or so it might be claimed if you were one of the 140 Labour MPs who voted on Monday night to renew Britain’s at-sea Trident nuclear deterrent.

The Tories did not need to secure the backing of Parliament to progress fully with the plans that are already underway for the successor nuclear deterrent programme. They did so because they wanted to pick at the scab of the wounded Labour Party. The newspapers dubbed the vote the biggest rebellion against the Labour leader to date. Yet conversely, it could seen as the biggest rebellion of a Labour leader against his party’s policy in nearly one hundred years. The vote was designed to ferment further division. We are vulnerable to attack and the Tories – indeed, all onlookers – know it.

What is also clear to see is that Labour Party members, supporters, MPs, MEPs and councillors are increasingly being judged in binary terms. We ourselves in the Labour Party are some of the harshest accusers. Blairite (nearly always pejorative), Brownite (shades of dull) and Corbynista (depends on your stand point and we only allow two) are the confetti currency of discussions.

In contrast, the reality of life is that it is full of nuance. Nuance sits also at the heart of the nuclear deterrent debate. It is not, as Ken Livingstone when he was Chair of the International Policy Commission declared, a division between the war-mongers and the pacifists. Our unity is in wanting a nuclear-free world. Our debate is in how we get there.

Labour’s NEC gave the International Policy Commission on which I sit the specific focus of reviewing party policy regarding Britain’s defence and security priorities. For the past six months colleagues and I have met and listened to fifteen experts giving insights into international strategic context, nuclear deterrence and Trident renewal and the defence sector and jobs. Their knowledge and experience carried weight. Their words and arguments carried nuance.

We were all seeking answers. We all have own starting point, with our own history and prejudices. My own starting point, as a child of the Cold War, is an abhorrence of nuclear weapons. Colleagues and I were all agreed on that. The idea of one nuclear bomb going off, let alone a full nuclear conflict, reminds us anew of the need to inject pace into securing a nuclear-free world. I was not sure, though, that replacing Trident was compatible with that. Lisa Nandy MP shares this view and reasoned to vote against Trident renewal on the basis that it sets back multi-lateral nuclear disarmament.

But does it? In Policy Commission meetings I have actively sought to challenge my own bias and have asked lots of questions along the way. It was notable that some of the experts, the majority of whose party political views remained unknown, looked deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of Britain failing to secure a replacement for Trident when it finally faces decommissioning. James Nixey from Chatham House and Malcolm Chalmers from the Royal United Services Institute warned of a resurgent Russia seeking to flex its military might. They warned months ago of the danger of Brexit and the impact that this would have on the strength of the EU and, by association, NATO in meeting the strategic challenges that Russia will present, especially now that it has form in Ukraine – a country which forfeited its nuclear deterrent.

Insight into the changing nature of nuclear weapons possession came from RAND Europe’s Paul Cornish. Stockpiles of nuclear weapons amongst known nuclear powers have reduced significantly in the past two decades, yet more states are seeking to acquire them. The risk of the use of a nuclear weapon by a rogue state has grown. The de facto understanding on which nuclear deterrence has worked is that of mutually assured destruction. This same assumption is being applied to rogue states. With rogue elements, this is applied in hope rather than expectation. So whilst there is a high probability that nuclear weapons will deter a potentially aggressive Russia, the same surety cannot be applied to non-states. Nuance emerges.

Whilst some have wavered on renewing our nuclear deterrent either on the basis of jobs lost or overall cost. I will push for a defence industrial strategy and want to see a default policy of using British workers to meet the UK’s defence and security needs. But unless a piece of equipment is needed, there can be no sensible argument for its manufacture just to keep people in jobs. As for overall cost, actual spend must be scrutinised against forecast spend. But since the defence and security of its people is the primary duty of the UK government, then if something is fundamentally needed in order to secure that aim, then it must be supplied. The central question for me was always, Is it needed?

I have come to the view that it is.

I want to see a nuclear-free world. I want us to fast-track efforts to secure multi-lateral nuclear disarmament. I do not, though, believe that scrapping plans for the successor programme will expedite that. I actually believe that right now it would make us more vulnerable to attack.

Not since I was that girl of the Cold War have I felt that our world to be so dangerous. We face terrorism and we must meet it. We face potential conflict from global warming consequences and we must be prepared. We face cyber and technology attacks and we must scramble to stay one step ahead. We face as yet unknown threats and yet we must be ready for them. Our complex world requires complex answers. It needs nuance.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Meeting Citizen Smith

I was a bit naughty talking about Owen Smith a couple of days ago. I kinda implied he was almost entirely anonymous and were it not for the public scrapping at the top of the Labour Party, I don't think he'd have gone down in history as one of our most able parliamentarians. That is not to be the case. Having been picked as the 'unity' candidate to run against Jeremy by the PLP majority, there is an opportunity now for him to seize the limelight and make a real name for himself. It's therefore time to give his candidacy the once over.

Owen's back story. Well, it's not the most compelling, is it? He followed the PR-lobbyist-MP route into Westminster which, to be blunt, is unlikely to endear him to many people. As there's an over-preponderance of such people already on our benches it's not going to help him stand out any (and yes, in case rabid Owen fans are already in existence and reading this, I'm fully aware that Jeremy is no horny handed son of toil either). Where policies go, there wasn't much to write home about until his launch a couple of days ago, of which more in a moment. Appearing on Newsnight semi-regularly, he didn't really strike me as much of an ideas man. Someone who can play the Westminster game, certainly. A politician competent in his brief and knows what to do in front of a camera (mostly), yes. But again, nothing stands out. Say what you like about last year's contenders, they each had something distinctive to offer and, yes, some substance too. I'm afraid to say that prior to his launch, all I knew about Owen was that he thought Jeremy should go and that he wants to be leader.

All that said, I think he enjoyed a very good leadership launch. It was more competent than Angela's late and unlamented affair and did what I think a challenger to Jeremy needs to do: he talked about policy from the get go. He scooped up Ed Miliband's baton (seeing as the PM relinquished all claim to it a short 24 hours later) and pledged to put equality at the heart of his policy agenda, including a totemic rewriting of Clause IV. He endorsed anti-austerity politics, a huge infrastructure fund, serious action on climate change, changing the law so Parliament decides on war, not Prime Ministers, and renationalising the rail. Who seriously can argue with such a policy line up? Perhaps the gruel I've imbibed for years is too thin, but I think it's quite a compelling platform. To win over those who fell in and out of love with Jeremy and the floating members, it needed to be. And were it on offer from the anyone-but-Jez camp last year, we might not be where we are now. However, a symptomatic reading of the launch reveals two significant silences. Trident was one, and his hankering for "progressive" immigration controls the other - positions I don't think disillusioned Jez supporters would find seductive, and by their omission Owen is aware of that too.

His big eye catcher though, which didn't get floated on the day, was his Europhilia. Calling for a second referendum on completion of May's slow Brexit (whenever that will be) is smart politics now because, firstly, the leader's support was and is mostly pro-EU, and secondly there are still millions of people politicised by, though not necessarily in a radical direction, by the referendum result. Remember, three million signed a petition calling for a re-run, and greater numbers (16 million) voted remain than has ever for a winning party of government in a general election (yes, yes, not proportionally, but the point is a substantial pool of voters are there).

Owen has problems though. While I liked his Citizen Smith pitch, his past will come up and bite him just as it has done Jeremy. Others have made hay out of Owen's involvement in PFI lobbying, on being more Blairite-than-Blair, of clapping through the academisation of schooling, and accusations of fibbing from noted Jez ally, John Mann. To me, at best this paints Owen as a politician who goes with the flow and says what he thinks has to be said to get on, much like how Labour unilateralists of the 1980s became Trident's biggest fans in the 90s. At worst, it suggests he is disingenuous. When anti-politics, some of which is informing Jeremy's support, is sick of less-than-straight politicians this is a significant disadvantage that could dog Owen over the next couple of months. Owen's second problem is his tendency to walk into rakes. The daft comment about Leanne Wood and the "being normal" silliness are quite petty in the scheme of things, but with the future of the party at stake it won't be the jibes online that do for him - it will be himself unless he gets a handle on this unfortunate habit.

His other big disadvantages, is - talking with comrades last night, both of whom are supporting Owen - that by standing as the unity candidate he is de facto the establishment candidate. His platform is a break from last year's hopefuls, but uniting party elites to beat a populist figure is what the anti-Jeremy team desperately needed to avoid. After all, pitting elites against 'the people' has worked well this year so far. The second big problem is there is little to no recognition of why Jeremy won in the first place, nor that politics and the party itself is undergoing a process of recomposition. If you cannot acknowledge that fact and think about what needs to be done, your insurgency is over before you've made the first phone call. Like the hapless coup plotters in Turkey, you cannot win if you plan for yesterday's realities. And lastly what applied to Angela's leadership bid now becomes his problem. There are forces supporting him now like a rope supports a hanging man. If Owen wins, and I think there is an outside possibility he could, he and the whole party knows he's on borrowed time. The so-called A-listers still have their designs on that office. What Owen will find hard to rebut is his being a foil for other people who'll push him aside when the opportunity arises.

And there, dear readers, is Owen Smith. Support him, reject him, praise him, condemn him. He does deserve some credit though, and this applies equally to Angela. Putting up against a popular party leader (at least among the members) is potential political suicide. He could well be feeding his career into the shredder. But in so doing he's shown more courage and leadership than all of the "big names" hiding behind his campaign, and for that I commend him.

Monday, 18 July 2016


A week in politics is an eternity these days, but can you remember that speech in front of 10 Downing Street? You know, when Theresa May looked down the barrel of the lens and channelled her inner Ed Miliband? The idea of a fundamentally different Tory party embracing its One Nation heritage and embedding it in a different economic programme certainly raised a few eyebrows. How's that looking so far?

Unfortunately, the sincerity of Tory Keynesianism has fallen at the first hurdle. May was very clear in the early stages of the leadership contest that the state should step in and prevent the sale of large businesses with strategic leverage. And so we have ARM and its sale to Softbank for £24bn. Not for the first time during the Tories' tenure, a key economic actor - in this case a giant in the increasingly important global high-technology market - has been sold off with the government blandly cheering it on from the sidelines.

What has been gained by the Tories as they've traded in future tax revenues, a burgeoning British-owned lead in the so-called internet-of-things, and the possibility of integrating a dynamic and socially useful company into an industrial strategy? Philip Hammond earlier heralded it as a vote of confidence in the British economy, which of course it wasn't - it's the purchasing of a market leader at a reasonable price. And, I'm afraid to say that is precisely why ARM's sale has had the government's nod. As we slope along the path of slow Brexit, May is going to pull out all the stops to ensure that, as far as business is concerned, nothing has changed. Britain is still one of the best places to invest, in or out of the EU, and you can swoop in and pick up the family silver with nary a murmur. Anything, anything that can stand in for and represent those sound fundamentals allegedly bequeathed by George Osborne will be seized upon and broadcast from the roof tops. Even if, again, it is entirely counterproductive from the standpoint of British business as a whole.

Softbank have said nothing will change. ARM will stay headquartered in Cambridge. The staff doubled. Everything hunky-dory, but we've heard that story many times before these last six years. I'm sceptical this buy out will prove any different in the medium term, unfortunately. What it shows without the shadow of any doubt is despite the promises to govern for the whole people, May's Tories on their first test have proved no different to Dave's term in office. A strategic company has been let go just for the sake of a brief market-soothing headline. Conservative decadence lives on, uninterrupted.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

What is Happening to the Labour Party?

Or, to be more accurate, what's happening to politics in general? The times they are a changin', and things are happening so fast that it's difficult to keep up. This week we've had a new PM, the ruthless purging of the Cameroons, two Labour leadership challenges (including one as I write this), the drama of *that* NEC meeting, the draconian rules on voting eligibility, and two legal challenges. Compounding the sense of chaos were the horrors of Nice and the failed Turkish coup - both awful events that will reverberate for years to come. When there is too much happening and you haven't got a staff of writers to help keep the blog updated, the only thing you can do is step back and reflect. Which is precisely what I'm going to do in this post about the state of British politics. It's time to go beyond the personalities and positions of the factions and look at what's moving in the guts of society so we can get a sense of what's happening to our politics.

Firstly, the thing isn't to pretend that everything was fine and dandy before the Brexit vote. Or, for that matter, Jeremy's election as Labour leader last year. Or before the general election. Or the Scottish referendum. The rapid, bewildering change we're now experiencing is amplified by recent events, but have their roots far deeper in the changes to Britain's political economy. To get close to understanding what's going on, a standpoint informed by the sociological imagination is required. The only alternatives are the realms of conspiracy theorising, or the fixation with personalities as per professional punditry.

It is now generally known and widely accepted that the 1980s saw deep and far reaching change to British capitalism and the class structure underpinning it. On the one hand you had the transition away from manufacturing as the bedrock of Britain's economic strength to an economy dominated by service provision (and hence mass consumption) and the production of immaterial commodities. Examples of this aren't just the aforementioned availability of services, but also knowledge, financial "products", and digital goods. The post-industrial trend wasn't just confined to Britain - it is the lot of all the advanced capitalist nations, though the way this transition was handled and the depth to which it was carried through varies from state to state. Bound up with this, at least in the UK, was the destruction of the institutional props of the post-war economic order - casualties of an unsparing, ruthless class war waged by Thatcher and her governments. The common sense that full employment was the objective of economic and social policy got junked. All that mattered was keeping inflation low, public spending down, and letting the market run amok. That the Conservatives and the interests they represent happened to benefit materially from tearing up the social contract was more than coincidental.

To reach this destination the state had to take on the organised labour movement, which Thatcher did in set-piece battles. Closing nationalised industries in the early 80s weakened the bargaining position of labour by flooding the market with millions of unemployed workers. Attacking the miners - the big batallion of the organised working class - and defeating them after a year-long struggle was the pivotal moment. Other struggles coincident with it, such as the dockers' strike and the collision between the government and Militant-led Liverpool City Council were paid off at the time and were clobbered once Thatcher dealt with her main enemy. That put trade unionism permanently on the back foot and we haven't recovered since. The labour movement has sat largely powerless as public services and state enterprises were sold off, broken up, or gutted by market forces. Neoliberalism, the common sense that markets were best at everything didn't come into being because it was "what worked", it's a philosophy justifying exploitation and the continued seizure of the greater part of social wealth by a tiny, powerful minority. It became the commonsense because they won.

Nothing lasts forever though, not even defeat. Because capitalism is a class system that carries within it the seeds of its own demise, seeing off challenges and challengers from within is a constant, ceaseless accomplishment. And the present political turbulence reminds us of this fact. The defeat of the miners and the full bore market fundamentalism Thatcher unleashed trashed the institutions that suppressed inequality, the communities that produced a "work ready" working class, the trade unions that fought for our share of the social wealth that we produced. It paved the way for New Labour's market-embracing approach, locked down social mobility, and made insecurity and anxiety the lot of millions. Our culture became schizophrenic and disjointed - at once atomised, powerless, and at the employer's mercy while flattered, seduced, and kowtowed to by the blandishments of consumption. Affluent lifestyles paraded as its trappings became less affordable, especially for the young.

The defeat of the post-war social order changed politics more profoundly than the turn to market fundamentalism and the (temporary) death of socialism. It weakened the relationship between the two main political parties and their constituencies, and was expressed in declining membership and joint vote share. While never actually total, in the Labour Party's case falling numbers and less input from the trade unions enabled moves to insulate the parliamentary party from the base and create a more authoritarian party in which power was concentrated in the leader's office and an iron grip exerted. As, under Blair, Labour made its neoliberal turn the constituency the party traditionally represented had a more passive relationship to its party. The transmission belt that would take shop stewards from the factory floor and into politics ceased, replaced by an over-preponderance of graduates from the party's middle class wing. Exacerbated by a strategy that ignored working class support to concentrate on the marginals of the leafy suburbs and (relatively) affluent towns, the atomisation of our class enabled the autonomy Blair's office and the party apparatus under his control. The continued pursuit of neoliberal policy by Labour in power ensured that, in its fundamentals, this relationship carried through into the Brown era and opposition under Ed Miliband.

Something similar afflicted the Tories too. Their deindustrialisation impacted negatively on whole sections of capital, small and large, and enriched some at the expense of others. Their market fundamentalism promoted selfish individualism at the expense of the family, of community, and of what they're supposed to represent at a values level - conservation. Under Blair, for the first time in their history the Tories went from preferred party of government to British capital's second eleven. For a brief period Blair's success in rebranding Labour as the party of business broke the Tories' claim to being its natural home. The consequence was the triple debacle of Hague, IDS, and Howard, and the pre-eminence of those business interests that did stick around: the socially useless but superficially dynamic city slickers, and the most backward, least competitive sections of capital. Hence under Dave, his and Osborne's economic and political programme was wedded to these interests, which were counterproductive from the standpoint of business as a whole, and ran the most sectional government in modern times in the hope of rewinning what was lost to New Labour. But as they did so, traditionally anti-Labour working class people, its petit bourgeois support, and the core Tory shire supporters were isolated, atomised, and ignored. They too had nowhere to go.

Constituencies were cut off from their traditional parties did not mean grievance and anger didn't stop accumulating. Sooner or later large numbers of ostensibly powerless people realise that strength of numbers does give them power and influence, and eventually find their way into politics. In other words, the disconnect prepares the ground for an eventual reconnect. There were two early signs the autonomy of politics couldn't carry on indefinitely. There was the rise of the LibDems throughout the 90s to the point they went into coalition. They represented something new and fresh, especially as they took a superficial social democratic turn under Ashdown and Kennedy. Even before the Iraq War, there were plenty of people in my age group happy to give them a punt against the bland managerialism of Blair and the repulsive conservatism of the Tories. For others, especially the most down trodden and semi-lumpenised section of our class, the BNP took off in a number of areas as a protest vote against established politics. In both these cases though, the protest was sporadic, inchoate, and passive. Matters moved up a notch as the LibDems collapsed and the BNP folded. First, UKIP, which was also a recipient of increased levels of passive support during the 00s, hit the big time after Dave alienated a good number of toxic "traditional" Tories over his equal marriage stance. The significance here was that it affected a split within the party itself as activists decamped to UKIP and it started wracking up impressive parliamentary by-election votes and became the go-to party of protest. UKIP then represented a partial reconnection to politics by those on the right alienated by the official right.

The next big earthquake was Scotland. Treated like a fiefdom by the Labour Party for too long, what happened was decades in the making. Rotten boroughs with tiny, barely functioning constituency parties, this was the part of Labour's apparatus that had intentionally been allowed to decay so the dominance of the PLP and the machine could continue unhindered. As it became more remote from its core support and promulgated policies opposite to the aspirations of its voters, the Scottish referendum and the catalyst of mass politicisation saw the party collapse as newly energised, active voters flocked to the SNP. In an incredibly short space of time, the SNP has cohered a solid rock of support that would take Labour decades to shift - if it can at all. The raw ingredient, again, was people who were atomised and ignored by established politics, and who rushed in once the possibility of making a difference was perceived.

And now the same process is working its way through the Labour Party. To have more than doubled in size in less than a year is incredible, and for a mass audience for radical, socialist politics to appear more or less overnight is breathtaking. It too is a product of mass alienation, of people in large numbers feeling angry and ignored for years. Their charging onto the political stage is entirely welcome and should be encouraged, despite the crudity, anger, and naivete that often accompanies it. Those cut off from Labour for the best part of 20 years, including those for whom Labour has always been just another establishment outfit, are cohering collectively around our party. The Corbyn moment last year, and the monstering that has taken place since is politicising and driving even more people into the party, transforming it from a party centered around Westminster constitutionalism into something that could do that and more. This means the leadership election is about more than who's the most competent, it is the site of a battle between an old order (understandably) wedded to previous realities and a new just beginning to become aware of itself. The potential danger is if this is successfully blocked then this new wave would find expression elsewhere, either through the Greens, or an evolving anti-political strand in the trade unions (yes, I think this movement of people will start working its way through the unions in time), or - very unlikely - a strengthening of the hitherto entirely marginal far left. The election then is a choice between a Jeremy-led Labour Party with all the problems it entails, or a party on the road to ruin. It's a matter more serious than winning or losing the next general election, it's whether the party survives as a going concern.

What's happening, then? Change is happening, and it's been a long time coming. Masses of people excluded for decades by broad social trends and deliberate political choices have, in spite of those processes, seized an opening and are remaking politics. And not before time - for apathy and anti-politics to melt before active political engagement is something that should have every democrat in this country rejoicing. Our party cannot avoid this and go back to the way things were. We either embrace the change and find ourselves strengthened in the long-run, or oppose it and invite our ruin.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Schiller - Once Upon a Time

Slowing down the blogging at the very moment history puts on a spasm of speed isn't something I was counting on. Nor are the pace of events sufficient for me to get a shufty on and start pouring the words out, which is annoying. They don't want to play tonight either, so I leave you with this - a  contender for my annual top ten of electronic music set to repetitive beats.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Theresa May's One Nation Toryism

Finally the curtain has fallen on the era of Dave and Osborne. A day I've longed to see, but one that has only happened because they trashed the country and left a trail of devastation we'll be picking over for decades. But more of them another time, for we have a new tenant in Downing Street. Theresa May's speech this afternoon was very much the kind of speech you'd expect Ed Miliband to have made if history turned out somewhat differently. Whereas One Nationism was very much rhetorical cover for Dave and his sectional two-nation politics, May has made such a song and dance about the kind of Britain she wants to preside over that we might actually see some of that blue collar Toryism that's excited the wonks for a while.

If May follows through her rhetoric, this is a significant shift for the Tories. From policies that are self-destructive and self-defeating back to "responsible" custodians of capital as a whole, her premiership is looking to be the most Keynesian since Jim Callaghan's. What an absurd world we live in. But it makes economic and political sense for the Tories to do what needs to be done. The economy is in a weak state and teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown thanks to the Brexit vote. What British business desperately needs is stability, hence May's pledge for a slow Brexit and no mention of austerity. Politically, as Labour settles in for a summer of self-harming she's seeking to redefine the centre ground around a Tory party interested in managing things and doing what works - all the better for painting Labour as wildly left regardless of who wins the leadership contest.

On her appointments, they are indisputably political decisions - as they always are. Ability comes second. And so, Boris Johnson is resurrected as foreign secretary, giving him opportunity for rehabilitation and a position in the public eye. Guaranteeing, indeed, that he and his still powerful faction don't cause trouble. The appointment of David Davis and disgraced former minister (now disgraced current minister) Liam Fox to the new Brexit and international trade ministries is further red meat for her back benchers. And Amber Rudd is pretty much May's mini-me - expect continuity of the most rancid, racist kind at the Home Office.

Them's the politics, but what bumps lie ahead? There is always a danger of history repeating. Having struck a 'no flash, just Gordon' pose from the beginning of her leadership campaign, competence depends on decisiveness, as Brown found to his cost. Her immediate problem is the general election question. Does she run the risk of an Autumn/Spring contest? She has ruled it out so far, but the rumour mill will churn and the press have column inches to fill. The other option, and one that might play to her one nation instincts is a national government that could cripple and split the opposition - especially now. Failing that, the slim majority isn't a problem that has gone away. May remains vulnerable to the Tories' taliban tendency who want Article 50 enacted yesterday. Slow Brexit is something they will find difficult to reconcile themselves with, despite the appointments of Davis and Fox. When the outcome isn't to their liking, because it won't be, what happens then? And on economic policy, after decades of free market dogma the shift to overt Keynesianism might befuddle those rare Tories yet to realise principle comes second to power.

It should never be forgotten though that if May does embark on her Milibandist programme, it's not because she's been converted to centre leftism. It's about the preservation of British capitalism. It will provide our movement new opportunities and audiences for deepening some of the measures her government ends up pushing through, but as Tories they will be careful to ensure they do not empower the collective power of working people. In this, it's up to us to ensure their efforts to keep us down prove fruitless.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The Eagle Has Floundered

After the dithering, Angela Eagle has finally confirmed she's standing for leader. Looking tentative and uncertain on both Peston and The Sunday Politics, Angela hardly cut the most convincing of figures. Perhaps because she knows this is a poisoned chalice condemning her to eternal toxicity by a segment of labour movement opinion - a fate few on the left would relish. Her leadership bid raises a number of questions, such as why now, why her, and what she hopes to achieve.

The now is pretty straightforward. Her announcement coupled with the unilateral suspension of talks between the big unions and Tom Watson indicates that they, as representatives of the PLP majority, are pretty confident that Jeremy will have to find the 51 nominations to stand. I'm not so sure about this because the rules, while not entirely crystal, aren't the ambiguous mess we're led to believe they are. Indeed, leaving aside for the moment the idea that keeping Jeremy off the ballot would tear the party asunder as the unions - rightly - take umbrage at the anti-democratic character of such a move, if constitutional shenanigans do indeed cast him to the further reaches of the backbenches then the leadership election could easily descend into chaos. With the biggest beast gone, those reticent about contesting now will throw their hats into the ring. And that's quite a few people. The, I'm sorry to say, almost entirely anonymous Owen Smith would put himself up. As would individuals and multiples each from the continuity Blair and Brown tendencies, the soft left and, who knows, perhaps a more palatable hard left figure. The ballot threshold means only four, theoretically, could make the cut, so expect a few bun fights and awkwardness as Angela comes under pressure to withdraw or finds her 51 MPs deserting her.

Assuming constitutional niceties are observed and should Angela win, the knives would be out almost immediately. And it wouldn't be just-defeated Corbynites preparing to get shut. The MPs to watch are those who've systematically undermined Jeremy from day one. The problem with Angela is as a leadership figure she's not terribly convincing. Like most sad Westminster watchers, I've found her performances at the dispatch box good fun. Every time she's gone up against Osborne, she managed to nail his slippery, jelly-like carcass to the wall. But what works in the chamber doesn't always travel well in the real world. Last year during the deputy leadership hustings, Angela compared poorly against the more polished candidates. Similarly, unlike the the dread Leadsom, her outing during the first televised EU Referendum debate did not draw 'leader-in-waiting' epithets. Polish doesn't matter to me, but it does to others, including some of her present fair weather friends in the PLP. With Jez out the way, how long will it be before they start briefing against her? "She's not up to it." "She doesn't resonate with the voters." "We need a credible leader." You can begin writing the script now. She knows this, of course. She is an instrument, a wedge designed to crowbar Jeremy out of the leader's office. The issue is how can she then step down after having done the deed without causing the party and her friends severe reputational damage. If this has been given some thought, there is no evidence of it as they haven't considered whether members, the unions, and the public would be a-okay with this re-enactment of the PLP's student days.

Why has she decided to bite the bullet then? Having asked around and spoken to a few folks, while there was a coup plot that some were in on, there were others who resigned spontaneously in protest against the character of Jeremy's leadership. To suggest all PLP members are Machiavellian geniuses is to afford them too much credit. Jibes aside there is a genuine mood among some MPs that Jez is just not up to it. To me, it appears Eagle is less ideologically motivated and more governed by practical concerns as she sees them. For her, standing is an act of duty whereas in the case of Owen Smith (again, who he?) it's more a matter of emulating Andy Burnham of the 2010 vintage and getting his name known. While I think her motives are genuine, there is a price to pay. She can probably live with her name becoming mud for Labour lefties, but it could cut her career short. When the time comes for the trigger ballots, not a few branches will get itchy and want full reselections for a good chunk of the PLP. And at the top of that list will be Angela. Possible deselection would have entered her concerns, and I don't doubt some deal has been done so she can later wash up in the Lords, or on the boards of a few Labour-friendly businesses. Or perhaps future high office has been promised in the unlikely event of winning and then standing aside.

The problem with discussing hypotheticals, of course, is they won't necessarily come to pass. And it's difficult to see how in a straight up contest between her and Jeremy how she can win. The only way is by swamping Jeremy's numbers, who grow by the day. For every previous supporter who has come to the same conclusion as Angela and will be voting against, there are others who didn't vote for him last time but are so outraged by the behaviour of the MPs that they are prepared to do so on this occasion. Perhaps Team Eagle can swoop down on wards and constituencies across the land and start out-recruiting Jeremy. The problem there is they've had nine months with nary a move to pick up more centrist and, generally speaking, less politically involved members. Colour me sceptical on that one. And then what happens after Angela loses? Are the PLP going to carry on their strike action? Will the moaners who've been whispering to the press about a new centre party with Remain Tories going to make good their threat? Whatever, the outcome will not be a happy one.

The sombre awkwardness of her leadership launch this morning doesn't suggest to me the kind of candidature likely to be going places. After circling for more than a week, it's not looking good for Angela. To put it simply, the Eagle has floundered.