Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Managing Labour's Electoral Expectations

We looked at this earlier in the year, so let's spend a little more time by the scrying pool. Managing expectations have become a political football in the interminable (and boring) tussle in the Labour Party. With forecasting subject to factional agendas, can we cut through the crap and think about what would constitute an advance and a reverse for the party and its leader? I'm going to have a try.

The key election for Labour - sorry everywhere else - is London. In the capital, Sadiq Khan and the Labour campaign have faced a barrage every bit as unpleasant as the one targeting Ed Miliband last year. The Tories and their helpful media friends have branded Sadiq an ally of terrorists because, wink, wink, he's a Muslim. And this is a deliberate strategy pushed right from the very top to secure the mayoralty for the terminally useless Zac Goldsmith. It is utterly outrageous but, thanks to the good sense of Londoners, Labour has a commanding polling lead. Fingers crossed, our vote will turn out on the day. It is highly unlikely that KenGate will have an affect on the polls, it being widely perceived as yet another barney in the bubble, but Goldsmith's dog-whistling, racist literature has been rammed down Londoners' throats. And in the country's most multicultural city that's electoral suicide. As far as Jeremy's prospects are concerned, only a win here will do. To lose again in London under these conditions would make it politically impossible for him to carry on.

This is the only result that put the leadership in jeopardy. Whatever happens elsewhere is not sufficient in and of itself. That said, the second most important set of elections after London is Wales. Oft neglected by the metropolitan set, the story here is of Labour dominance slowly getting eaten away by UKIP and, to a much lesser extent, Plaid Cymru. The last poll has Labour on 33%, Plaid on 21%, the Tories on 19%, and UKIP 15%. Yet there is a factor not yet picked up by the polls, but has certainly manifested in the local council by-elections in Wales over the last couple of months: the government's handling of Port Talbot. The debacle has seen Conservative polling plummet in the three or so Welsh by-elections taking place in that time. Now, three car crashes don't make a motorway pile up, but it's difficult to see how their very public indifference and incompetence can't but depress the Tory vote further. The question then is who benefits? While Labour has the disadvantage of incumbency, I think it's fair to say that if we cannot capitalise at all on government difficulties here that would be very disappointing, especially when polls and by-elections are not pinpointing breakthroughs for the leftish Plaid either.

There is Scotland, which may as well be written off. A number of folks, including me, thought Jeremy's leftism would be enough to begin the claw back at this set of Holyrood elections. Ha, I can laugh at my naivete now. The problem is the SNP have run a relatively competent, relatively centre left administration in Scotland for eight years and cornered the market in political vision thanks to the referendum campign. Matters weren't helped by the rotten state Scottish Labour had got itself into after years of neglect and complacency, nor selecting a leader who epitomised the old Westminster-centric way of doing things, nor seen cosying up to the Tories and conniving in their hysterical and mean-spirited attacks on the independence movement. With Labour unionism taking a battering, only a generation-long struggle of rebuilding and opposition can make it a proper contender again. And so this Thursday's verdict on Labour in Scotland doesn't spell doom for Jez or Our Kez, but delivers the final act in the electoral battering our party - truthfully - has deserved for a long time. Where it does become a problem for either of the leaders is if the Tories snatch second place. In Ruth Davidson the Tories have found a leader who combines genuine charisma (without Boris-style manufacturing) and down-to-earth personability. Alas, shame about her politics. She is their best bet for detoxification, but despite being well-liked I don't think the Tories will pull it off in votes or seats. But if they do that's one more cause for concern.

The English local elections then. Jeremy has been widely attacked for saying this lunch time that we will lose no seats. Of course, by this he means we will make net gains - not that a single council seat will be snatched away. However, there are a number of mediating factors that ensures the result, unless it is a huge disaster, will not impact on the leadership. As a general rule, Labour councillors are more pragmatic and centrist than either the left-leaning membership (even before the Jez surge) and the right-leaning parliamentary party. And this is their election. They are incumbents defending positions conquered off the back of coalition austerity, and did so running semi-independent and highly localised campaigns. Then, as now, many hundreds of candidates were convinced the leader was a liability, and then as now have doubled down on local issues. And, on the whole, you tend to find that the voting hardcore who turn out for the locals tend to have those matters in mind. As with London, KenGate barely registers, but decisions about roads, housing, services, council tax, and so on do. Labour are disadvantaged by incumbency and being in power in a disproportionate number of seats, which ordinarily makes losses likely, but this would be just as true if Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper were at the helm. But again, while the media are convulsed with Westminster parlour games the awful headlines of the preceding month about steel, about tax, about the budget and for some, the EU, could depress Tory turnout. The question then is which will matter more? My money is on the strength and focus of Labour's local campaigns in framing the issues that matter. And so I think it's fair to forecast unspectacular gains for us.

The other elections taking place are differently weighted. The two parliamentary by-elections in Ogmore and Sheffield Brightside should be pretty much in the bag for Labour, taking place in super safe seats. Losing either or coming close to failing would be a major difficulty for the leadership, but that none of the usual suspects have alighted upon them, let alone spoke about them goes to shows how unlikely a threat from that quarter is regarded. And there are the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. Don't expect a record low turnout like last time as the proper electoral machinery is in place, and will be boosted by other elections. Last time, Labour barely registered outside of the metropolitan areas, and seeing that few of the electorate and the political cognoscenti care that much about them, outcomes either way won't matter much.

And so there you have it. A few predictions and some consideration of the wider ramifications sans the tedious internal partisanship. What do you think?

Monday, 2 May 2016

For Accelerationism

What does radical politics in the 21st century look like?

The internet has projected onto a wider canvas a rerun of America's culture wars. Partying hard since the late 1980s, postmodern self-theorised subject positions face off against self-theorised subject positions in battles for recognition and cultural space vis a vis each other rather than those who hold economic and political power. Related to this is the resurgence of a radically-tinged liberal feminism, a movement so varied and inchoate that prominent activists can challenge sexism and male violence one day, and collect a gong the next. Sitting uneasily with the 'new' feminism is a fast-gaining trans-insurgency around cultural acceptance, against violence by men (again), and access to responsive health care. The new politics of race and lesbian and gay equality are now so utterly mainstream that conservative governments can champion same sex marriage. That is, unless one is a Muslim.

On the environmentalist spectrum, key tenets of green thought have been adopted by radical politics. These include the environmental consequences of capitalism, the critique of economic growth, a concern for biodoversity, and the acceptance of climate science twinned with scepticism towards science and claims of progress. All too often, the critique of capitalism is subsumed in a rage against technologically advanced society itself, and finds expression away from mainstream greenism in back-to-the-land primitivism and refusenik communities cut adrift from history.

Traditional revolutionary leftism is still around, if you know where to look. In the British case, the groups laying claim to the mantle of Marx and Lenin have long abandoned the struggle to organise the mass of working people as a political party (if they ever did). They instead pursue a species of postmodern identity politics. Resting on an immaculately shaped grouping of no social weight, they appeal nostalgically to a working class that hasn't existed since the mid-1970s, or intervene in an amorphous "movement" with all the subtlety of a Ken Livingstone debating Israel, and repel those they seek to attract.

The distinctly untrendy bread and butter politics, which never went away, come and go, albeit now with more input from 'social movement trade unionism'. Manifesting in campaigns to defend public services, to resist gentrification, to protest the strip mining of the welfare state, and the taking of industrial action, the subterranean struggle of people upon whom the media gaze seldom falls bubbles up always and everywhere, but tends toward the episodic and sectional, drawing in only the immediately-affected. The trace each campaign leaves, whether successful or not, activates only a small minority for wider politics.

And now social democracy, or at least parts of it are undergoing radicalisation. Having ditched political principle for colourless managerialism, centre left parties across the West have lost out to populist right wing surges, and are now facing leftist challenges from within. This return of the repressed however is not matched, at least yet, by shifts in wider movements at large. It is a recomposition within an existing tendency overlapping all of the above. This includes existing party and labour movement activists, and a section of its passive support. As the institutional and constituency bases of social democracy and labourism corrode, the new leftism is a body shock realisation that it faces disintegration. By identifying its key drivers - neoliberal capital, government-enforced austerity, galloping inequality, and the political abandonment of our people - old warhorses like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders speak to anxieties provoked by a shifting and destabilising position and have proved in spectacular fashion that it can mobilise. Meanwhile, the old masters of the social democratic universe are left scratching their heads. Cocooned by parliaments, cushioned by the media, and swaddled by self-importance, they never saw the insurgency coming, and its that lack of foresight that condemns them to the political wilderness. Yet the question remains, as a product of decline, can a partially radicalised centre left arrest the decline?

This is, more or less, how it stands, and all are variously networked and bound by the here today gone tomorrow connectivity of social media. But how might a 21st century radicalism look like? I think it should look like Accelerationism.

As with all trends and movements, a lot of crap has been written about accelerationism. Some see it as the creed of Spiked/the RCP and its cadre of professional contrarians, a tendency that fetishises technology as is and pushes for its fullest development for the benefits to trickle down. Where have we heard that one before? Others, with a touch more naivete and without tedious opinion pieces to sell, lapse into a 19th century inevitablism, that somehow the new society will spring automatically from space telescopes and nuclear reactors. As an adulation of the technical, a celebration of the speeding up and compression of social life, the worship of the accomplished fact is no foundation for the radical: it is a mere affirmation of what is.

The accelerationist does not submit to the world but probes, analyses, asks questions, identifies trends, and strives to make concrete all progressive potentials. The object of accelerationism is not the digital trinketisation of social life, but social life itself. It stands for the ruthless criticism of all that exists not because it's fun, and/or allows one to pass as superficially radical, but to change the world. It eschews utopianism because the material conditions for everyone to live freely and deeply already exist. The job of accelerationist politics is to accelerate the human potentials capitalism has cultivated and realise the epoch of freedom that lies within our reach.

Yet as a politics accelerationism is a potential too. Its clearest and earliest expression was in the works of Marx and Engels, and as their insights have diffused, fragmented, and become vulgarised and embedded. Particulates of accelerationism are scattered over established radical politics and manifest partially and unevenly. Yet the core relationships identified and critiqued by classical Marxism have conformed to the prognoses declared 150 years ago: the more they change, the more they stay the same. Accelerationism is fortunate in the sense that while other forms of radical politics desperately seek a subject, its potential constituency of billions of propertyless wage and salary earners, the very people who labour, who think, who create this world have never been greater in number, been as inclusive of all social categories, nor wielded as much social power. In as far as established radicalisms tap into, express, and organise these interests, the task of the accelerationist is to be there and accelerate things by dealing with the politics as they express themselves. There is no time to be dazzled by illusion, especially those we conjure ourselves.

Accelerationism's ambitions are vaulting. It is not a fringe pursuit, but the distillation of really-existing trends that point beyond capitalism's antiquated limits. As such, accelerationism cannot help but be the avant garde of the avant garde. It demands to be a movement of movements, of the conscious activity of the immense majority acting for the immense majority. Therefore accelerationism is a synthesis. It imbibes the best and discards everything that is rotten about existing radicalism. It valorises the human, celebrating our capacity to think, to feel, to love, and to create. It has no time for misanthropic miserablism nor romantic rubbish that sees positivity in the poverty of ages past. It is resolutely anti-capitalist, though not averse to using capitalism against itself and bourgeois interests. And most of all, accelerationism stands for a better life for everybody, a world in which the scars of want are banished, where alienating work is done, and the free development of each is the condition for free development of all. It is everything that is best about technologically advanced civilisation, and then some.

The challenges this century is stacking up are terrifying, and left unchecked spell doom and ruination for billions. The despoliation of the environment and climate change don't just threaten standards of living: they put into question the possibility of living. Yet it doesn't have to be this way. Dealing with our problems is not beyond our ability, but they cannot be seriously addressed for as long as capitalism is hamstrung. If our species is to enter the 22nd century in better shape than it did the 21st, accelerationism, the politics of potential and promise, has to succeed.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Five Most Popular Posts in April

The five most-read last month were:

1. Ken Livingstone, Labour, and Anti-Semitism
2. Explaining the Election of Malia Bouattia
3. Dave, Panama, and the Press
4. What BHS says about British Capitalism
5. McDonald's and Labour "Snobbishness"

Everything was going so swimmingly ... until Ken Livingstone. Well, perhaps not, but for at least the last few weeks the spotlight was firmly on the Tories' major difficulties. Not even yet another (confected) internal row, this time about a McDonald's stand at party conference, was enough to distract the media's attention for a sufficient period. And, well, we all know what happened this week. At least as far as my lazy corner of the internet goes, the fall out from KenGate inflated viewing figures for my take on the farce.

Anyhow, next month will be interesting. There are the elections to look forward to, in which the results will be blamed on Jeremy, or the fractious PLP, depending on where you stand. There's the unfolding train wreck of Tory expense claims, which could see 26 by-elections take place if the case ends up in court and reruns are ordered. And there's another month of the terminally dreadful EU referendum campaign to live through. At least there's the Eurovision song contest to look forward to!

Okay, my pick for a retread is A Sociology of Sexist Trolling, my attempt to make sense of the sad inadequates who like to cyberstalk, harass, and threaten women in the public eye.

Saturday, 30 April 2016

Local Council By-Elections April 2016

Number of Candidates
Total Vote

* There was one by-election in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There were Independent clashes
**** No Others this month

Overall, 10,894 votes were cast over six local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Two council seats changed hands in total. For comparison with March's results, see here.

On the surface, they look like pretty appalling votes. The Tories on 37% while Labour falls behind the LibDems at 15%? What a disaster! Except no. April is by far the worst month for by-elections because all the parties collude to roll contests over to the council elections that usually take place every May. So I'll leave it for now. Nothing to see here.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Ken Livingstone, Labour, and Anti-Semitism

1. Ken Livingstone is a massive dickhead. It's high time he acted like a member of the Labour Party, not the Ken Livingstone Party. I and many thousands of activists, including plenty on the left, are fed up with his frequent foot-in-mouth moments that damage his own reputation, that of Labour's new leadership, and the standing of the party as a whole.

2. But Ken is not an anti-semite. Without wanting to predetermine the Shami Chakrabarti inquiry (not that an occasional blogger from the backwoods can), I am virtually certain her investigation shall reach the same conclusion. Ignore the people who fell over themselves on Twitter yesterday calling for his head and focus on the facts. Here are the transcripts of everything said over the last couple of days. It would be a stretch to describe any of those comments as racist towards Jews.

3. That isn't to say Ken isn't bloody stupid. Leaping to a Nazi analogy as soon as issues around Jews, Israel, and Zionism are raised is just so crass and offensive. Yes, it is a matter of historical record that there were links between leading Nazi figures and the Zionist movement in the 1930s. Yes, as Zygmunt Bauman establishes in his seminal Modernity and the Holocaust, the murder factories of the Third Reich were an outcome the Nazis evolved toward as the most expeditious "final solution" to the "Jewish Question". But there is a time and a place for discussions of these kinds, and I would suggest in the middle of a highly-charged political row about anti-semitism isn't one of them.

4. It's worth noting at this point that anti-semitism in the Labour Party is vanishingly rare. Considering the efforts journos and opponents of the leadership have gone to to find Jeremy supporters sharing dodgy memes and saying deeply unpleasant things, all they've turned up is a swivel-eyed Trot entryist and a couple of no marks from places even more obscure than my beloved Stoke-on-Trent. In other words, what we might call fringe people on the fringes of the movement. The idea that anti-semitism is endemic to our party is bullshit.

5. There is an issue when it comes to some of the hard left. As with the case of Malia Bouattia, there are activists who use sloppy language and clumsy tropes when talking about Israel and its lobby operations overseas. This can be and is construed as anti-semitic, is sometimes interpreted as dog-whistling, and is exploited by cheerleaders for Israeli policies. Matters aren't helped when the same sections of the left indulge Islamists who have no such compunction about framing their opposition to Israel in racist terms. The left is still capable of being its own worst enemy.

6. And the enemies of Corbyn are exploiting this row. John Mann's public rant at Ken Livingstone for the lunch time bulletins yesterday screamed contrivance. Mann knows very well that Ken is neither a Nazi apologist, nor that anything said is supportive of their crimes. But it ratcheted up the volume, feeding a confected mythology that everywhere you look in the Labour Party, on every committee and underneath each pile of leaflets is an anti-semite hiding. This is being whipped up and exploited by those who wish to see Jeremy turfed out of the leadership, and they will use any means to do so, no matter how damaging it is to the party and its immediate electoral prospects. That doesn't let Ken off, nor those bits of the left whose rhetoric sails close to the wind, nor those actual anti-semites who got kicked out. It is quite possible for the left to shoot itself while presenting a big red bull's eye to its enemies.

7. The sad truth is that while anti-semitism isn't a really existing problem for the Labour Party, it has become more so for society at large. Attacks on Jewish people in London last year increased by 60%, with a 200% jump in Tower Hamlets alone. However, nationally there was a 22% fall from the 2014 peak of incidents (924 vs the preceding 1,179). This is set against a resurgent anxiety among British Jews. What people whipping up this hysteria for factional advantage have got to ask is how do they think portraying the Labour Party as a hot bed of anti-semitism will play to Jewish communities that have supported Labour in the past, but feel anxious, increasingly marginalised, and under threat? Thankful the community have insincere windbags like Mann sticking up for them? Or more alienated from our party and perhaps a touch more fearful in general?

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Theresa May's Leadership Bid

As the EU referendum battle gets nasty and Tory tears lumps out of Tory, spare a thought for the chancellor and the London mayor. At times these last six months, both men have had reason to believe their careers are sloping upwards. Number 10 has conceivably been in reach, but their grip on political gravity has loosened and its possible their rise will be accompanied by a death plunge. And now, threatening to hasten their fall has appeared Theresa May, the one oft-overlooked as Osborne and Johnson tussle for the prize.

Her intervention yesterday in the EU debate was pretty disgusting. Far from lecturing her party on its nastiness, May scraped up the foul-smelling discards of her "celebrated" 2002 conference speech and tried transmuting them into political gold. And, unfortunately - talking about it with @catherinebuca last night - it could just work. She trotted out the basic argument that leaving the EU would weaken the British economy, which is Remain's strongest suit. Sticking with the economic theme, she passed directly over into the crudest economism and said the European Convention on Human Rights "adds nothing to our prosperity." If that's the case, then why should we bother with the courts and, indeed, liberal democracy itself? Not that logic has ever been the bottom line to Tory politics - it's always about position-taking to defend and extend the interests of entrenched privilege. Yet reiterating the pledge to scrap human rights legislation and withdraw from the ECHR (where Britain will join the company of Belarus) is her wink to the Tory grassroots, that the EU stuff is cold pragmatism arrived at on the basis of facts when she really is one with them when it comes to dismantling workers' protections, and bashing immigrants. If the left have virtue signalling, the right have the malevolent wink. And if that wasn't enough, she raised the spectre of millions of Albanians and Turks descending upon the Jerusalem we've built in these fair islands. The only way to head them off is to take leadership in Europe to stop new member states from being afforded the right to free movement.

Immigrant-bashing and dog-whistling. Repugnant politics, but from the standpoint of succeeding Dave quite smart politics. As a known Eurosceptic, she has advanced a credible position for staying in that eschews any whiff of EU-enthusiasm. And she's got away with the usual idiocy about immigration without appearing overtly racist or xenophobic. Contrast this with Osborne, who has well and truly sunk his chances which, as a Labour Friend of George, I'm very sorry to see. And with Johnson, whose faux bonhomie has slipped (again) with a widely-condemned attack on Barack Obama, and who - as his fellow MPs know - only jumped into the leave camp for entirely opportunist reasons might have scuppered his bid. In contrast with the useless and the loud-mouthed, May cuts an austere, serious figure who knows what the thinning grassroots thinks, and appears competent in her brief.

When the time comes and the Tory MPs put their shortlist of two to the membership, don't be surprised if May is one of them.

Monday, 25 April 2016

What BHS says about British Capitalism

On global capitalism in Lenin's day, the Bolshevik leader had this to say: "Imperialism is an immense accumulation of money capital in a few countries ... hence the extraordinary growth of a class, or rather, of a stratum of rentiers, i.e., people who live by “clipping coupons”, who take no part in any enterprise whatever, whose profession is idleness ..." If only the money men of 21st century Britain remained excrescences on the economy, of directing their stooges to invest capital and growing fat off the labour and talent of others. At the risk of being wistful, this ideal-typical view of your average capitalist is long buried and have gone beyond mere uselessness. Drunk on their parasitism, they are oblivious to how their appetites are not just imperiling the health of the enterprises they gorge upon, but threaten to kill them outright.

The latest example is the collapse of British Home Stores, a venerable department store that has graced the high street for 88 years. Not that I ever went there, which I suppose is a microcosm of the predicament it finds itself in. Lately, not enough of anyone have come through its doors to buy outfits and lampshades. Yet the Darwinist cut and thrust of the retail market can only shoulder so much of the blame. The reason why BHS is looking down a barrel, and its 11,000-strong workforce face uncertain futures is in large measure down to its erstwhile proprietor, the fly-by-knight Sir Philip Green. Acquiring the struggling BHS for £200m in 2000, Green and his family shook the firm down for a billion quid. All the profits, all the wage squeezes, every saving that could be wrung from the business passed through head office en route to Tina Green's capacious purse in Monaco. And when there was nothing left, Green offloaded BHS on his tax-dodging wife's behalf for a quid. The new owners, a ragtag-and-bobtail outfit going by the name of Retail Acquisitions, failed to raise the cash BHS needed to start turning itself around.

It goes without saying that Green's behaviour was grubby and disgusting, and he could face action from the pensions' watchdog amid suggestions that the firm dodged its obligations (this would be on top of the pensions holidays many large firms took in the late 90s/early 00s, all with a nod from Gordon Brown). Seemingly aware he could be on the hook for something, Green has offered to stump up £80m toward the BHS pension fund's half-a-billion deficit. I hope the sop is rejected and he gets rinsed.

As you can see, Green went well beyond the "coupon clipping". His ownership and running of the brand suggests little if any interest in preserving the business for the long-term, of increasing products, introducing new lines, investing in new technology, and battling it out for market share. You know, the things Max Weber told us capitalists are supposed to do. If BHS was in difficulty 16 years ago, self-evidently a business that has a billion pounds sloshing around is a business that was not a basket case. Instead of treating BHS like a bile bear with the tap left on full for the Green durée, the monies could have been used to add value by expanding its range, aggressively marketing itself, and venturing properly into online retail. Instead, Sir Phil was to his host a tax-dodging, celeb-stalking, yacht-bothering tapeworm.

Ah, but he's a one-off, a bad apple, yes? In the interests of fairness, BHS's problems can't all be laid at his door. The so-called death of the high street is the result of policies pursued over the last six years. The cost of living crisis (remember that?) was always more than a soundbite for millions of people. As meagre wage rises/freezes have bitten, people don't have as much cash to splash, hence middlebrow stores like BHS were always going to face what the experts call a "challenging retail environment". The second is the brash new competitor, Amazon, have got away with ripping off the Treasury. Without as much of a tax liability, they have built an infrastructure on the back of exhausting, low-paid work, which has given them an unfair competitive advantage. Having got caught dithering over steel, the Tories are not about to invite more scrutiny of their complicity in this situation. Which probably helps explain why Anna Soubry's been very quick to discuss the issue in the House and dampen speculation about redundancies.

There's a winder point. Green is the "cultural dominant" of what a capitalist looks like in 21st century Britain, the sort valorised, flattered, and admired by the City and its helpers. The pursuit of profit, of realising returns on investment, comes not from building things but of tearing them down. As David Harvey points out, global capital from the 1980s on snapped up sold off state infrastructure and coined it from the introduction of markets into public services. New markets were conquered, but these were provided by governments as they let capital swoop in and profit from institutions under their stewardship. Capitalism ate the infrastructure that sustained it. As Britain is the epicentre of global finance, we find here these necrotising social relationships have achieved their fullest expression: an economy whose GDP is dependent not on production, but the selling of houses between buy-to-let landlords, a state bent on selling off what's left of the public domain to politically suitable bidders (one doesn't have to be the highest, as the Garden Bridge fiasco demonstrates), and a financial industry that sucks in Britain's best brains to design fiendishly complex but socially useless "products", "packages", "vehicles", and "instruments". Funny how the intangible has annexed the language of the concrete. In sum, the owners of capital have become dysfunctional and decadent from the standpoint of British capitalism itself.

Green is not a one-off. He's archetypal.