Monday, 6 July 2015

Labour Leadership Candidates on the Greek Referendum

Yesterday's vote in Greece was a momentous occasion. Almost two thirds of a people, many with politics far removed from that of its leadership, said no to demands for more austerity from the well heeled bureaucrats of the IMF and European Central Bank, and the ministers of the European Commission. It won't be until tomorrow that we'll know what the troika are going to do in response. Reasoned heads would suggest a debt write down and allowing Greece space to grow its economy to meet its obligations. This, after all, is the oh-so radical demand Syriza are pushing - it's hardly all power to the Soviets combined with the socialisation of private property. Yet as past behaviour indicates, the troika are anything but reasoned.

Moving from the streets of Athens and the committee rooms of Brussels, how has this news been received by British parliamentarians? George Osborne has pretty much shrugged it off. Direct British bank exposure to Greece is only £10bn, though of course in the our interconnected world of toxic financial instruments ostensibly trading as assets who can say what the real risk is? Nevertheless, the government stands ready to print money to protect the banks economy should the need arise. Labour's response to the referendum outcome is not too dissimilar. However, Chris Leslie, goes on to say "Eurozone countries need to do their best to offer the chance for fresh negotiations. And the Greek government must face up to its responsibilities for stronger governance and economic reform." Perhaps if the troika stopped force feeding debt to Greece while hamstringing its ability to help itself, then I'm sure the Greek government would broadly welcome the acting shadow chancellor's sage advice.

For Labour Party people who look to their leaders for a political lead, what then have each of our leadership candidate got to say about yesterday's hugely significant event?

For Liz Kendall, it's not a lot. We learn that 150 councillors are signed up to her campaign, and has caved to the Tories' utterly abysmal English Votes for English Laws nonsense. On her Twitter feed there's a retweet of Duncan Weldon's musings, but that's your lot.

Over to Andy Burnham's gaff and it's pretty much the same. While it is always nice to see Sally Lindsay doing Labour things, it's just endorsement, endorsement, endorsement. Never mind the events in Greece, what if I wanted to know about Andy's policy positions? I've said it about Liz Kendall before, I might not like what she says but it's easy to find out what she stands for without having to trawl the web for policy snippets. There's nothing on his Twitter feed either. Ho-hum.

What about Yvette Cooper? As a trained economist, has she got something to say about the Greek crisis? There's something. Written before the outcome of the referendum became known, she writes that the situation remains pregnant with crisis regardless of the verdict. She argues "Now that this failure risks reaping instability across Europe including here, we need big voices in Europe to persuade both Germany and Greece - and the whole of the Eurozone - that they need to agree an achievable long term plan that will actually get the Greek economy growing again rather than repeatedly putting it into reverse. Without growth any economy will struggle to pay its debts down." Exactly. I'm also buoyed to see Yvette using the occasion to attack the Tories. She notes "The honest broker in that situation ought to be Britain. We are a major European economy, who can play a leading role and we are removed from the immediate negotiations because we are rightly not a member of the Eurozone. But instead our Government has taken a passive approach that is letting Britain's interests down." In other words, Dave and Osborne are striking an isolationist course in the hope the crisis will leave Britain alone and go away. Yvette is right, of course. If Dave was clever, offering its services as a neutral party in the Eurozone dispute might allow him to accrue some political capital that can be expended in return for treaty change concessions. But then Dave is anything but clever.

Does the final challenger have anything to say? As you might expect, Jeremy Corbyn puts his response to the Greek referendum in more forthright tones. As he put it, "Democracy has spoken in Greece. The people must rule, not the financial markets." Quite right. While hoping for more, seeing as Jez has been on Greek solidarity demos and is due to speak outside the Greek embassy in London tonight, there's little more that needs to be said.

Before undertaking this brief exercise, I was not surprised Jeremy - given his activist background - put out a statement. Nor was I about Yvette. Her presence in the leadership campaign so far has been a touch understated, but quietly formidable. Given her range of experience across most government departments and familiarity with economics, for her not to have commented and put forward a straight centre left position (which is miles better than the Chris Leslie press release), well, that would have been a strange occurrence indeed. It reflects badly on Andy and reinforces the image of him being a one-trick pony. As for Liz, what's the point of coming across as a fresh start if you don't have anything to say about *the* crucial issue facing the European Union and the economies of its member states?

A leader is supposed to lead. Jeremy and Yvette have staked out their positions on an issue of enormous import. It's a credit to their political nous and strength as politicians. Liz and Andy haven't, and says pretty much the opposite about them.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Greece Votes No: What Now?

In time, they might come to call it the Tsipras Gamble. With an impossibly weak hand, no one seriously thought Syriza could pull it off. The verdict of the bail out referendum was predicted to be close, so close that it might well have been Syriza as opposed to Greece heading for the exit door. Predictions were made and screeds written on the genius/idiocy of Tsipras, but whatever side one took everyone inside and outside Greece forecast a tight vote (including, um, me). That, it was suggested (and indeed, was actively hoped-for in some quarters) would have tied the hands of the Greek negotiating team in meetings with the troika.

And so the decisive result, 61% no to 39% yes is of huge significance. It represents two things, both of which are troubling for the status quo across Europe and the nature of the European project itself. In their decadent determination to imprison Greece behind ever thicker walls of debt, the Commission, the ECB, and IMF have progressively undermined the likelihood that the full amount of monies lent will ever be seen again. The demands that the hard pressed majority of the country have to pay up to stay within the (ideologically defined and selectively enforced) set of rules governing relationships between creditors and debtors have set themselves up for a huge fall. While they and their proxies in the Greek opposition threatened the fiscal equivalent of thermonuclear doom, the ground of national pride and democratic self-determination was ceded to Syriza. Tsipras didn't run rings around the troika because of Napoleon-like genius - he did it because he knows austerity is a political matter, while his opponents have managed to convince themselves it's a matter of technocratic decision-making and economic necessity. The margin of victory, won in the teeth of a near unanimity of yes propaganda pouring from media outlets, means that when the troika meet the negotiating team again, they know there's a solid democratic mandate behind them. It also means something of a precedent has been set. Should Portugal or Cyprus say find themselves in further difficulties, referenda are a proven counter measure to the weapons of economic devastation.

The leading representatives of the EU establishment are not used to dealing with a democratic upsurge. The EU, after all, has always been an elite project with marginal input from EU citizens, apart from sparsely-observed elections once every five years. The shoddy way the troika have treated Greece is not lost on tens of millions who switch on their news every night. The awful behaviour of Merkel in particular does not reflect favourably on the EU. It's already in the legitimacy doldrums as far as many right wing voters across Europe are concerned. Therefore, it's bonkers to risk the political capital the EU has with people of a centre left persuasion - particularly when Dave's vainglorious and totally unnecessary in/out referendum in Britain slowly but surely approaches. Merkel and co. would be extremely foolish to persist in the hard line they've so far pursued. And there appears to be signs of movement - Merkel and Hollande are jointly convening a Eurozone summit for this Tuesday in response to the referendum. What will win out, the short term placating of voices at home calling for no more Greek bail outs or continued commitment to the Euro and EU?

At home, the win has cemented Syriza's position not just as the government (despite, formally, still being a coalition) but as the hegemonic force in Greek political life. It's a lesson all parties of the left can learn from. Tsipras didn't just campaign on national sovereignty and democracy, Syriza has won the argument on economic competency. As I've argued previously, Syriza has promised to manage Greek capitalism better than the capitalists. Their demands are more than just the "isn't it awful" rhetoric that, unfortunately, colours most of the left's anti-austerity campaigning here. It's bound up with a convincing, credible economic model that has something to say to layers of capital as well as labour. Their opponents to the right don't have anything apart from doom-mongering and more misery on offer (unsurprisingly, the official leader of the opposition, Antonis Samaras has resigned as the right fall into disarray), and the left have either capitulated (PASOK) or consigned themselves to irrelevance (KKE). Whatever happens, Syriza's position bristles with the democratic weaponry handed to them. Opposition at home and abroad cannot touch them, for a time at least.

Now what? From the right, Fraser Nelson runs down the dangers of the situation. But there are opportunities too. The risk of financial contagion might focus minds at Tuesday's Eurozone meeting to hammer out something that might inject a bit of stability into the situation. Like following the IMF's recommendation that Greek debt be restructured with some necessary write down. Perhaps even a touch of quantitative easing might be indulged seeing as the deflationary pressures on the European economy remain (provided Germany overcomes its understandable reluctance to do so). As the banking crisis in 2008 reminds us, neoliberal dogma can go out of the window if the system is imperiled.

There's a geopolitical dimension too. Russia as a possible source for a Greek bail out has been discussed and dismissed thanks to collapsing energy prices. However, perhaps now mainstream comment and EU watchers will pay more attention to the invitation Greece received from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the so-called BRICS)in setting up a new development bank. Ostensibly to fund development in emerging economies, in practice it will provide an alternative to both the IMF and World Bank. Rather than accept the punitive strings these outfits have customarily attached to "assistance". It would be a major coup and a blow to the financial status quo if a developed economy, cut adrift by a short-sighted troika was to act as a fiscal honeypot for European states in trouble. That doesn't mean Greece can be ejected from the EU only to fall into the arms of the BRICS in short order, but in the medium to long-term the IMF and its friends might not want to facilitate the development of a rival.

New Blogs June/July 2015

Oh look, the summer has brought with it a nice range of new blogs.

1. brianblackblog (Labour) (Twitter)
2. davesoapbox (Unaligned/mental health) (Twitter)
3. Liz Kendall: A Fresh Start (Labour) (Twitter)
4. Local Government Worker Activists (Unaligned) (Twitter)
5. Making Workers Pay (Unaligned/Anti-Cuts) (Twitter)
6. Nora Mulready (Labour) (Twitter)
7. Sean Henry (Labour) (Twitter)
8. The Hand & Mouse (Unaligned) (Twitter)
9. The Voice for Change (Labour) (Twitter)
10. Trouble in Unison (Unaligned/Unison)

Also featuring this week are a couple of others that don't quite meet the criteria of my monthlyish round up. First is CelebYouth.org (@celebyouthuk), which is a research project looking at - you guessed it - celebrity and youth culture. The second is reliving the 80s by @lavarae, a neat left blog I missed when it first started. So, enjoy.

As always, if you know of any new blogs that haven't featured before then drop me a line via the comments, email or Twitter. Please note I'm looking for blogs that have started within the last 12 months. The new blog round up usually appears on the first Sunday of every month. And if it doesn't, it will turn up eventually!

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and the Trade Unions

There were howls of dismay on my Twitter feed last night. And it wasn't all because Heather Watson lost a close fought match with Serena Williams. It had something to do with this: that the GMB and Unite look all set to endorse Jeremy Corbyn's candidacy for the Labour Party leadership. And the people doing the moaning? Mostly Liz Kendall supporters.

It's a strange turn about, considering a number of PLP Blairites view Unite as some sort of latter day manifestation of the Militant Tendency. Why are they up in arms about their designated enemy's leadership preference? On the one hand, there is the complaint that neither union have undertaken a formal consultation with their members about who they should endorse. There are two things worthwhile noting at this point. The first is unions are representative organs of the democratic will of their members. Whether you think they should have had a proper, organised debate in the union about endorsement or not - and I think doing so could well have helped boosted the pitiful numbers so far signed up as affiliated supporters - it is well within the rules for this decision to be made by elected executive members. If the Kendallites don't like it, they might wish to spearhead direct democratisation campaigns in the unions. Secondly, I doubt there will be any such hand wringing when, right on cue, USDAW and Community deliver their support for Liz Kendall by an identical method. After all, everyone remembers David Miliband magnanimously insisting those two unions ballot their members prior to granting him their endorsement.

The other problem for Liz Kendall supporters is that they're deeply worried. For all the prattling about Ed Miliband's character in the lead up to the election, it remained the case that the more people saw of him in the short campaign, the more they liked him. Not enough to win, of course, but it was a thing. Unfortunately for Liz, she is suffering the opposite problem. Her candidacy has rapidly gone from being a contender to looking increasingly like her bandwagon going to roll in at fourth place. Needless to say that would be a disaster for whom Liz's liberalism is synonymous with "modernisation". Should this scenario come to pass, there could be a few resignations and decampings to a Tim Farron-led (cos he's going to win, isn't he?) Liberal Democrats.

Let's come back to this main point of this piece. In truth the GMB and Unite are between a rock and a hard place. I suspect very strongly that the respective general secretaries would like to nominate someone other than Jezza, but it's politically impossible for them to come out publicly and so so. Despite very strongly disagreeing with the GMB's Paul Kenny's decision to accept a knighthood, he has been an excellent general secretary and served his union well. The GMB are growing off the back of well-organised industrial disputes, targeted anti-austerity campaigning, sustained recruitment, and a building up of the union's soft power within the Labour Party. For Paul and the exec to come out for the three leadership candidates who, at best, have an equivocal attitude to more cuts would cut against the work the union has been doing. Unite's Len McCluskey on the other hand has made a name for himself denouncing austerity and threatening to call plagues down upon the party unless it listens to his "advice". However, an uncharacteristic period of quiet on his part has settled over the airwaves since Jez made it onto the ballot paper. Even the dogs in the street know he would like to see Andy Burnham as leader, despite his stark position takings these last few years.

In addition to being politically impossible to support anyone but Jez, there's the small matter of trade union activists themselves. When the anonymous briefer in the Telegraph piece says "He represents the kind of Labour values the unions want to support ... Are we backing someone who could not possibly win? Yes, we are. But there is a feeling we need to nail our colours to the mast ... He represents anti-austerity, investment in sustainable growth, supporting tackling poverty. That is the way to get the deficit down while improving living standards", the unions are giving voice to some of its most active supporters. And I happen to agree. Remember, Labour didn't lose the election because it was "too left", as some cynically and self-servingly maintain, it lost because of the perception of lack of economic competence - which is hard to tie to the too left charge when the "left" policies consistently polled well - and because the Tories scared the bejesus out of enough people. Labour needs to formulate an alternative that, to mangle the Blairist mantra, combines economic efficiency with a heartfelt, cast-iron commitment to social justice. What better way to ensure that happens by making sure anti-austerity politics pulls in a greater number of votes than the candidate who epitomises business-as-usual?

Friday, 3 July 2015

Gender and Management in Fallout Shelter

To piss off any gamergaters stumbling on this post, let me note that when Anita Sarkeesian says ...


... she is right. The further observations made by Eugene Fischer are also right. Then again, saying you cannot grow your population in Fallout Shelter quickly without pregnant women - as noted by @catherinebuca (since deleted) - mirrors life is also correct. Cue confusion for those wedded to either/or thinking.

Fallout Shelter is a resource management game set in the 1950s retro future/post-apocalyptic Fallout universe, and forms part of Bethesda's marketing juggernaut as it gears up for Fallout 4's release this coming November. And basically, all you do is run a vault, the nuclear bunkers in which some inhabitants (dwellers) of the franchise cower. And the aim, as much as there is one, is to keep it ticking over by expanding the numbers of rooms and facilities it has, keep the population going, and protect the place from radroaches and raiders on the outside. It's a make busy game, a real-time challenge of incessant micro-management pile ups.

In such a game your population has to reproduce. Therefore "impregnating as many women as possible" is an inescapable game mechanic. This is something it shares with plenty of other games, such as Civilization and Sim City. With one key difference. There population growth happens "spontaneously" off the back of food production and the placement of residential zones, respectively. Fallout Shelter demands the player adopt the view of women as a reproductive resource. This, of course, is identical to the position patriarchal social relations have placed women in throughout recorded history, which in turn has been subject to radical feminist critique.

Something else is afoot too. The practice of video gaming helps inculcate and reinforce various postures we need to assume to get on. There's the practice of screen-staring, the practice of lifestyle design, the practice of ego-amplification. Fallout Shelter reproduces the logic and practice of managerialism. It reminds me of the problematics of population management explored by Michel Foucault in his first volume of The History of Sexuality. Various disciplinary technologies that centered on the body conspired to produce certain kinds of people, namely bodies that were healthy, bodies that were docile, and bodies that would work. This is your viewpoint. You manage a population.

In Fallout Shelter, there is a certain gender fluidity. If you fancy it, your time as Overseer can establish an underground matriarchal dwellerdom, place all the women in the skilled jobs - including what passes for military - while the men wash dishes and scrub floors down the canteen, but that does not escape the horizon of the managerial problematic. It simulates the managerial mindset and strives to inculcate a sympathetic predisposition toward managing things, of being able to take the point of view of management - something most workplaces try and encourage anyway. Decisions here are conditioned by resource bottlenecks or by external threats, in contrast to really-existing managerialism which is always much concerned with social control of subordinates. What Fallout Shelter depicts in its game mechanics is an ideology of management. Power is stripped out of the equation.. There is no need to take the viewpoint of your charges, because you always know better than them.

Could Fallout Shelter be fun and compelling in any other way? That's a bit like reimagining Space Invaders without the shooting. It's a stripped down ideologised simulation of the necessities that beset human communities, and how it encounters them in the context of a culture constituted by unequal gendered relationships naturalised in and by accepted regimes of ostensibly technocratic managerialism. Anita's observations are right, but they're just one element of the cultural codes wrapped up in the game.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Notes on the Greek Crisis

Crisis? Since 2009, when has Greece not been in crisis? What the people of Greece have suffered is nothing less than a permanent depression that has since its economy collapse by almost a quarter and hundreds of thousands of its young people have fled abroad in search of work. Meanwhile, public spending has been cut to the bone in an austerity programme the likes of George Osborne can but aspire to, and has seen it return surpluses of around six per cent of GDP to the treasury. However, instead of investing and allowing that money to recirculate, to grind the cogs of the Greek economy onwards, it's being systematically parcelled up and sent off to the creditors. As the depression grinds on, the state is effectively prioritising the synthetic demands of the so-called troika, of which more shortly, above the human needs of its flesh-and-blood citizens. This is fiscal barbarism, the collective punishment beating of an entire people not responsible for the debts in whose name austerity is being carried out. And it's an austerity that just isn't working. To have complied with the creditors' requests ha seen debt rise from 120% of GDP to an utterly unsustainable 170% - instead of Eurozone bigwigs carping about the credibility of Syriza and Tsipras, the people of the Eurozone would do well to reflect on the idiocies of their finance mandarins.

This wasn't a situation of Syriza's own making, but they've certainly made the best of it. Internationally and domestically, Tsipras and Varoufakis have played a nuanced, sophisticated political game aimed at raising the level of consciousness in Greece and abroad, but as we have seen this week with Tsipras's surprise announcement of a bail out referendum, that hegemony has only brought them very limited wiggle room. For all the talk of capitulation and sell out from ultra-left micro groups and the increasingly unhinged KKE, the referendum caught the troika on the hop, and has allowed Syriza to oppose both democracy and national pride to the EU's carpet bombing of Greece. But even then, Syriza cannot defy political realities. Despite everything that has happened, as Monday's huge Yes demonstration, um, demonstrated; there are millions of Greeks - not all of whom are untouched by austerity by any means - who will cling to the bail out in the hope that by staying in the Eurozone, anything and everything the troika throws at them is going to be a lesser evil than the alternative. That's why, though from the safety and comfort of sunny Stoke-on-Trent, I didn't think ringing up Berlin and asking for an 11th hour renegotiation was a good move, but having out-maneouevred our ECB friends with a referendum, and then looking like it might be lost, Tsipras at least had to do something to try and avoid a major loss of face and, perhaps, the government's resignation. The troika know this too, which is why after their initial shock, and the absurd rant at the Greeks by Commission president Jean Claude Juncker, they've knocked it back. When the Greek electorate can't take more artificially-induced depression, but want to stay in the Eurozone at all costs, Syriza are in a difficult position that no amount of radical posturing can extricate the party from.

Meanwhile, I've seen the argument floating about in some centre left circles that parallels the common sense of the ECB's bovver boys: that Greece ran up the debts, so it has to pay them. It's not as if faceless banks and the debt holders either, as this BBC graph helpfully demonstrates:


This has led some to suggest that Syriza's line is morally reprehensible because what is being lent is taxpayers' money. Spain and Italy, with not a few difficulties of their own, would quite like to see those debts repaid so their own economic houses can be put into order. Understandable, except for a few things. Firstly, Syriza has not repeated the Bolsheviks' actions a century ago and repudiated all foreign debts. What they are asking for is a combination of debt relief, because £170bn is simply not sustainable for an economy of Greece's size, and a restructure. Showing far greater awareness of how capitalism works than the high priests of European capitalism, they know every cut acts as a negative multiplier. Scrapping the "solidarity grant" each pensioner receives upon retirement, for instance, weakens spending power and the jobs reliant on that money, depressing economic activity and therefore the capacity of Greece to service its debts. Secondly, in cheerleading more austerity for Greece because they've been through it themselves, the Spanish and Italian governments are acting in such a reckless way that they're unlikely ever to see the sums returned. Likewise with Angela Merkel. As a canny and astute politician, she knows her tough talking curries favour with the German press and electorate, and she also knows that her policy agenda is imperilling the likelihood of repayments as well as the future stability of the Eurozone itself. Like the centre right here, Merkel is sacrificing the medium and long-term health of German capitalism and those it has subordinated to it in the EU framework for short-term posturing. So what if it keeps a lid on the populist movements in Spain and Italy and those stirring elsewhere if the whole project is in danger of fraying?

In short, on the side of the debtors the people least qualified to negotiate with Greece are recklessly imposing conditions that undermine their own position. As the crisis builds and creates uncertainty and jitters, you can be sure they're the ones insulated from having to pay for it.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Stewart Lee on Conservatives and Labour

No chance for a proper blog tonight (tomorrow, I promise). Meanwhile, enjoy this very brief observation from Stewart Lee on politics in Britain.

Five Most Read Posts in June


The most popular posts last month were:

1. Short Notes on Jeremy Corbyn
2. Don't Blame the Council
3. What is Jeremy Corbyn Playing At?
4. The Gnashing of Blairite Teeth
5. How the Conservatives Can Win Again

Another very busy time on the blog. After last month's peak we've had to settle for being the third best month ever. Diddums. Still, very good for what has always been a too quiet time of year as far as my little corner of the internet is concerned.

Enough backslapping. The announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's candidature pulled the punters in as I started musing about its potentials and its qualities. Likewise, the internet travelling public lapped up the mild rebuke aimed at what then seemed an unserious attempt at getting himself on the ballot. ITV's Don't Blame the Council saved my blogging bacon last week as I was for want of something to write about. Upsetting Blairites appears to be a niche I've started cornering, so expect more of that. And bringing up the rear is how the effects of Tory policy, i.e. the generation of greater insecurity and social anxiety might, after all, provide ideal electoral fodder for them in the future.

Who's hanging around for a second chance? There's yesterday's piece on the running sore that is local politics in Stoke-on-Trent. And there is my slightly chin-stroking piece on the politics of labour supply helps explain why British business can live with the Tories hammering migrants - because their social security cuts are aimed at unlocking a perceived labour reservoir at home.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Stoke-on-Trent: Another Fine Mess

This one's going to run and run. I am, of course, referring to the controversial (to put it mildly) relocation of Stoke-on-Trent City Council from Stoke to Hanley. If you're not from the Potteries, it's a city made up of six towns with their own centres and, according to some, unique senses of identity. Confusingly for a metropolis called Stoke-on-Trent, the town that doubles up as its city centre is Hanley, not Stoke. However, whereas most cities have their council HQ in the centre moving it to Hanley has proved controversial because a) it came with a £55m price tag slap bang in the middle of huge cuts to the local government grant, b) feeds a sense that Hanley always does well over and above the other towns, c) would remove large numbers of council workers from Stoke with the consequent hit to businesses that rely on lunch time trade, and d) this comes about 20 years after the council was moved from Hanley to Stoke after the previous building, the brutalist monster Unity House, was deemed unsafe to continue housing the local authority. Nevertheless, I remain convinced of the case for the move while mindful that a large number of other Stokies don't.

The announcement of what became Smithfield was three years ago, but it has cost Labour dear. It saw our party lose control of the council and I think it's fair to say it depressed Labour's parliamentary share too. The constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, where I'm sitting right now, saw the lowest turn out in the country. Yet rumours of doom and gloom about the chosen developer, Genr8 didn't come to pass and today the first two buildings of the Smithfield development are up. But they're definitely not running. Of course, as if confirming every cynic ever to have drawn breath in the city limits, it's gone wrong. Potentially very wrong. Possibly knock-it-all-down-and-start-again wrong, according to some. It's a project that's had its share of mishaps. First there was a debacle where the council, late in the day, discovered that it had better order some furniture. Then there was the embarrassing oversight of the council not spotting the routing of a gas pipe ... through its main fire exit. And the third? Well.

The plans for the two buildings, imaginatively titled Smithfield 1 and Smithfield 2, specified that there would be a great deal of exposed concrete in the interior. We're not talking yet more brutalism but a smooth kind of concrete that would not be aesthetically objectionable and would also, apparently, allow for easy access to the building's innards. The contractors responsible for the concrete, the Manchester-based firm Laing O'Rourke, were to prefabricate the various odds and sods at their facility and deliver them to the site for installation. However, in the best traditions of if-something-can-go-wrong ... something went wrong. It turns out that either the mix of the materials used was wrong, or that some impurities got into it. Whatever the case, the nice, smooth textures that were the buildings' endoskeleton have turned out to be a touch less. It is my understanding that the impurity has left the floors and the supports with a slight bubbly appearance. The developers maintain that it is merely cosmetic and has no bearing on their structural integrity. The new council leader and his triple alliance of City Independents, Tories, and UKIP maintain that it's a bit more serious than that.

Ah. What another fine Stoke-on-Trent fuck up.

However, there is a danger Cllr Dave Conway could make a bad situation worse. If there is a difference of opinion about the viability of the concrete used, then fine. I can understand why he's asked for patience on the part of interested Stokies as other materials experts are sounded out. He is, after all, very keen to differentiate his ragtag and bobtail outfit from the perceived authoritarianism of the previous administration. On that I'm willing to give him a bit of slack. Yet if it does turn out to be okay, and I suspect it will be, our alliance of pub bores, anti-immigrant tub-thumpers, speak-your-Daily-Mail-headline machines, and unprincipled combinationists are courting further disaster. It's a mystery whether the late Cllr Paul Breeze or the Chuckle Brothers penned the inimitable City Independent manifesto, but their main pledge was to stop the council move from Stoke to Hanley and flog off the buildings. Let's just think about this for a moment. Suppose you are a business or government department looking at locating some operations to Stoke's Smithfield because of its location and, ahem, "competitive" wage base. You see that the Council Leader has a record of denouncing the development as a waste of money. You see how over the half-year he has used rumours about its concrete floors and supports to build political capital. And you also note that should, as is likely, the expert(s) give the build a clean bill of health, the council aren't going to move in. On what planet is that business or organisation going to ever pony up the full value of the building? In what possible reality are they going to happily lease those offices at the appropriate commercial rates? What Dave Conway has done, and given his minions full licence to continue doing, is undermine the market potential of a council asset. If the local authority can't show any confidence in its new build, what makes it think an inward investor will?

Not to worry. If the Smithfield development stays empty while money is bled out through existing, inefficient council buildings; or if it's sold on at a massive loss, at least the people of Stoke-on-Trent can look forward to the exciting debut of the City Indies' Staffordshire Hoard tea set.

Monday, 29 June 2015

West Midlands Labour Deputy Leader Hustings

We've had the leadership hustings, but what about the other contest running in parallel? Who will deputise for the leader and take the party by the scruff of its neck? It's going to be Ben Bradshaw. Or Angela Eagle. Or Stella Creasy. Or Caroline Flint. Or Tom Watson. Like the preceding hustings the format was identical, so there's little reason to style this write up differently.

How would you like to improve the job prospects of the young?
SC:
We've got to get the deficit down because of all the interest payments going to the bankers. But we do need to adopt a different approach, one that emphasises house building, jobs growth, and putting money into people's pockets.

AE: We must invest more in young people and work against insecure jobs and zero hour contracts. We also have to attack the Tories for their false economies, such as their willingness to cut preventative health care programmes.
BB: We have to grow the number of well-paid jobs, and we can do this by investing in infrastructure, developing a dedicated industrial strategy, and also keep up the investment when the economy is strong. We also have to tackle the productivity challenge - we saw output grow under Labour but it has declined under the Tories.
TW: We used to make things here in the West Midlands, and hi-tech and green industries offer an opportunity to rebuild our manufacturing base. We should also set up regional investment banks.
CF: Labour has to be credible on the economy, and on this point we were too unclear to voters. We need to have something we can offer small and medium-sized enterprises to help create good jobs. It's also appalling that too many kids are leaving school without the education we need.

Should Labour review its links with the trade unions?
AE: I'm proud of our links - the unions gave birth to our party and keep us connected to people's workplaces. Too many are treated badly at work, and so democracy should be something more than what we do every five years. The unions are part of our soul.
BB: Labour needs to mend, not end its relationship with the unions. We have to make the case for union membership, and work to build them up in the private sector and new economy.
TW: Organised labour is under attack, be it on political funding or the democratic right to withdraw your labour. The unions have stuck with us through difficult times, and we need to stick by them now and show our solidarity.
CF: I'm proud of being a trade unionist and we shouldn't be cowed by the Tories. We've got to reach out to recruit as well as reach into the union membership and find out why many of them didn't vote for us.
SC: Unions have made a difference and I'm very proud to have worked with them on the campaign against legal loan sharking and women's rights.

Which previous deputy leader of our party was best, and why?
BB: All of the deputy leaders since I was elected in 1997 have been great. It's a tough job keeping the party together and delivering difficult advice to the leader. At the moment Harriet is doing well taking the fight to the Tories.
TW: I get compared to John Prescott the most, but I am also very proud of Roy Hattersley and the role he played holding the party together in the 1980s. Also I would pay tribute to the calm, cerebral qualities of Margaret Beckett.
CF: All had their own talents, but I would have to pick Harriet. She has twice stood up and performed her duties in very difficult times for out party.
SC: I've always had a soft spot for John Prescott, and he is backing my campaign. Like John, a deputy has to work with and encourage the grassroots, but do that with a modern twist.
AE: Margaret Beckett is backing me. When John Smith passed away she stood up and made a moving tribute to him. She was our first woman leader, and the job of the deputy is to be loyal to our leader.

What issues are important to women?
TW:
They are the same issues they have always been: fair pay, education, childcare, affordable homes. The attacks on in-work benefits are going to hit women more.

CF: Women and men tend to be affected by the same issues, but we do need to find better ways of talking to women especially about them. This is something I have a great deal of experience doing.
SC: I am a proud feminist and a proud socialist. Why is it that childcare is still seen as a women's issue? Also, two women a week are killed by domestic violence - if that was happening on the football terraces there's be uproar. And we need to get more women involved in our party.
AE: We've got to work at supporting women in our party structures. If women can't be heard then our party has to be their voice.
BB: I think everyone here is worried about these issues. For example, how cuts to tax credits will impact families. We also have to look at how we do politics and I think we would do better if we moved to a more encouraging, more feminine politics.

What does Labour need to do to take votes back from UKIP and the Greens?
CF: We increased our vote in my constituency and ensured UKIP came in third place. We had more open ended conversations with voters and ran target campaigns. For instance, we found and named and shamed bad employers, and from there we were able to address voters' other concerns.
SC: Those parties told a powerful story of who is to blame and who will defend the people from them. To win, we have to build on the work our councils are doing. We need to champion people trapped in renting, offer a strong house-building plan and offer some real answers to the difficulties faced by the young.
AE: Since 1992 we gave double our majority in my constituency and we've done this by having conversations and confronting people's worries. We have been able to overcome the lure of anti-politics by being seen about in the constituency and accessible to anyone who wants to get in touch.
BB: We need to have credible policies on immigration and welfare but not use UKIP's rhetoric. We also have to be green and combine that with our broad appeal. But we must remember that four out of the five voters we needed to convince supported the Conservatives. That has to be the main focus of our challenge.
TW: UKIP is an 'irrational vote'. I recently talked to a group of UKIP voters and one of them told me we should microchip immigrants so we can keep track. We have to be willing to listen to those opinions so we can build a response to them. And the way we can win UKIP voters back is by encouraging and strengthening our community focused councillors.

How can we make sure the environment is back on the mainstream political agenda?
SC: This is an issue for Labour in Europe. Only through collaboration across borders can we make progress on climate targets. But we have to make the case for showing a strong relationship between the environment and local politics, this is the only way scepticism can be overcome.
AE: We do have to deal with climate change together as a group of nations, but progress has stalled since the Kyoto Protocols. But the potential opportunity for social change here is huge. To meet the targets and prevent environmental catastrophe means we could be on the cusp of a great transformation of our politica because we need to work together.
BB: We need to talk about environmental justice as well as social justice, but we should be proud of our record - we were the greenest government ever. The Tories' moratorium on onshore wind robs us of cheap renewable energy and that will be passed onto bills. We also need to reach out to the activist work done by NGOs around this and celebrate them.
TW: We need to restate our commitment to international institutions while here we have to invest in industrial diversification and adaptation, which will help create thousands of new jobs. Green issues are the most important area of policy today.
CF: It's important to talk about the threats but we must discuss the opportunities too. By aligning climate change mitigation with job opportunities, we can make it matter to many and reach out to them.

How should we appeal to older people?
AE: We didn't have enough policies that older voters found attractive. We must ensure that people feel secure in their retirement, but also that it is a retirement that is active, supported by free travel, and social care must become an top priority.
BB: They didn't trust us on the economy and believed there was a deficit when it came to leadership. We also need to challenge this notion of 'selfish OAPs', they often vote the way they do out of what is best for their families. We need to sound credible across different age groups.
TW: Too many older people live a lonely life, and that is something we need to think about and tackle. Our party also has to get into and be part of their social networks. I also think they were alienated by the cult of youth we have on the front benches.
CF: As you get older you're more likely to vote because wider issues matter to you more and more. That is why social care now is a massive issue and it's something we need a credible position on. We also have to realise that the age of deference has gone and adjust accordingly.
SC: We should not accept the Tory logic of winners and losers. Older people are parents and we should starting thinking of them as such - this way we can make a pitch for solidarity rather than trading off.

In their summing ups, Stella said that for us to win we have to start fighting back now and keep up the pressure. But this is something the whole party can do - we have to make sure we're visible in all manner of grassroots campaigns and use the new techniques available to us. Angela said she never wanted an exit poll moment like that exit poll moment again. We have to ensure our campaigning is better connected and give our members more of a say. She said she's a straight talker, and will always be the members' deputy. Ben said he was the candidate for the tough challenge of prising voters off the Tories. His experience in Exeter, which was once a safe Tory seat and is now a safe Labour seat, means he's suited to this job. He also said he would not fear telling the leader hard truths. He has no agenda and can work with any of the leadership candidates, and that 'Labour', 'loyal', and 'winning' are the only labels he would accept. Tom said that the hardest truth is knowing that it's always our fault when we lose. What we say, what we do, and what we don't always matters. We have lost touch with the people we should be representing - our people who voted UKIP did so because they were voting against us. But we can win again if that connection is rebuilt. And lastly, Caroline talked about her background as the child of an alcoholic single mum who used university to escape her past, and was then a mum of two kids by the time she was in her mid-20s. She has had real life experiences and this has fired her as a campaigner, constituency MP, communicator, and policy originator. We need a real community movement, and her experience makes her very well placed to lead it.

Once again, I was only able to capture the substance of what was said. But overall all the candidates were well received by the audience. There was little in the way of polemical shadow boxing between the contenders. I think the winners on the day was a tie between Ben Bradshaw and Caroline Flint. Ben came across as polished but genuine, and Caroline as tough and straight-to-the-point. Their closing pitches, which is hardly conveyed by their rendering here, were among two of the best I have ever seen anywhere. Some might say they were better than any so far seen in the leadership campaign proper. So kudos to them for that. Angela was perhaps the most ill-at-ease of the five, what she said was good but, tellingly, she made her way to the podium and read her closing remarks out whereas her opponents had memorised theirs. Tom was Tom - he was assured, charismatic, and clearly felt relaxed performing on his home turf. And Stella came across very enthusiastically, if not a bit too earnest. In all I think all the candidates did well.

Dare I tempt fate again and perhaps jinx a candidate by making a prediction? I'm going with the bookies favourite, Tom Watson. His candidature is a real unifier. I know people on the left who are supporting him, and likewise people on the right. What he conveyed was an understanding of the kind of beast the Labour party is and what needs to be done to get the organisation fired up and sorted out. I'm afraid Caroline and Ben are likely to split the difference when it comes to what you might describe as the 'Progress vote', though I think Ben particularly does have something very interesting to say about the Tories and how we can beat them. Stella, of course, has a high profile and also has that cross-wing appeal Tom has, except he's been around for longer. And Angela stands to scoop up the remainder of the vote of those people who are anti-Tom (they do exist), aren't particularly enamored of the New Labour right, and think Stella is too new. Unfortunately, that's not a terribly large vote pool.

Yet, again, all could change. Events and all that, and there's still a long summer to get through.