Monday 30 December 2019

Progressive patriotism is an oxymoron

There has always been a dichotomy at the very heart of the Labour Party between nationalism and internationalism.  Asked directly which they are, they will always respond ‘internationalist’, but scratch the surface and a deep-rooted seam of Anglo-British nationalism is readily revealed.  There have always been those who have stood resolutely against it, but what has been referred to as ‘working class patriotism’ has always been stronger, in the end, than the idealism of some in the leadership.  It was precisely this dichotomy which led many to claim that Kier Hardie died of a broken heart during the first world war, as his dream of international co-operation between the workers of all nations was torn to shreds by an outbreak of jingoism as those workers enthusiastically took up arms against workers elsewhere.
And just as that dichotomy has long been there, so has the response of leading figures in the party been split between those who seek to lead and persuade people that workers elsewhere are their brothers and comrades, and those who seek – for electoral gain – to ride and harness the power of simplistic nationalism.  And it was with all that in mind that I read, with huge disappointment, the words of the MP who is, apparently, the front-runner to take on the mantle of Corbyn, and her call for something called ‘progressive patriotism’.
It’s true, as she says, that “Britain has a long history of patriotism rooted in working life”, but arguing that that history is somehow ‘internationalist’ because one group of workers at one point in time opposed slavery elsewhere merely highlights the dichotomy to which I referred earlier; it doesn’t make patriotism internationalist.  Indeed, ‘internationalist patriotism’ strikes me as an obvious oxymoron.  There’s nothing wrong with having, as she puts it, “pride in our communities, dignity in our work and a common purpose”, but an internationalist stance seeks to use that as a basis for co-operation with others, not as a basis for competition against them.
One thing which I think is clear from the election is that the Conservative Party is reinventing itself as an English nationalist party (and I really do mean English here, not British) and riding the tide of jingoism which has always been there under the surface of apparently rock-solid support for Labour.  The Labour Party can either seek to accept this shift in the Overton window of public debate and work out how to ride and channel that sentiment (which is what ‘progressive patriotism’ seems to be about) or it can seek to show leadership and attempt to build a better understanding of why co-operation is always better than competition.
I don’t hold out much hope; the belief that co-operation is superior to competition looks like a key Labour value, but even to the limited extent to which it has been pursued it has always been limited, in practice, by the boundaries of the United Kingdom.

Tuesday 24 December 2019

A seasonal ballad

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the House;
The only thing stirring was an occasional mouse;
(Despite the endeavours of cats and of men;
The mice just kept breeding, then breeding again.)

In the warmth of his chambers in the shade of Big Ben;
The Speaker was feeding his pets in his den;
A parrot called Boris, his Rottweiler, Pat;
And Maggie, and Betty, and Dennis the cat;
And when he’d retired to his bed for the night;
A fairy came calling, and pleased at the sight;
Of animals various feeding together;
Thought this lot will easily suffer the weather;
And other privations of a cold winter’s night;
And turned them, each one, into unicorns: white;
“With harness and sleigh and your great horns of gold;
Tonight you’ll pull Santa, like the reindeer of old.”

In the dark dingy attic above Number 10;
Boris and Carrie were sleeping but then;
From the roof o’er their heads there arose such a clatter;
They sprang from their bed to see what was the matter;
Unicorns in harness aren’t easy to steer;
Imagin’ry creatures no match for reindeer;
With no time for practice or training at all;
Santa had crashed, straight into the wall.

As Santa recovered whilst sat on the floor;
Boris rushed out through the famous black door;
His face creased in smiles as he let out a cry;
“I never expected my unicorns to fly”.
“They don’t”, said St Nick, “or at least not as well;
Reindeer do better, as you plainly can tell;
Your lies and dishonesty will ne’er be forgiven;
But I try my best with the team that I’m given.”

Turkeys, they say, never vote for the feast;
It’s longstanding wisdom, for politicians at least;
But Boris was different, with his gift of the gab;
He’d convinced many turkeys the feast would be fab;
A sleigh pulled by unicorns was easily sold;
To those who believed his promise of gold;
His delusions of grandeur came forth at a canter;
He even believed that he could be Santa.

As Santa prepared to return to his work;
He heard Boris moving and turned with a jerk;
To see Boris leap to the seat of the sleigh;
The unicorns impatient to be on their way;
Boris picked up the reins and gave a quick whistle;
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle;
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight -
“Happy Christmas to turkeys; to turkeys good night!”

With apologies to Clement Clarke Moore.

Friday 20 December 2019

Tories' real success is setting the terms of debate

I mentioned a few days ago the problem with Labour’s increasingly transactional approach to politics, but it isn’t just Labour who suffer that problem.  It seems to me at times that Plaid are suffering from a very similar form of transactionalism.
In Labour’s case, policies which might, in many cases, be based on a socialist view of what the world should be are sold not on the basis of building that better world but on the basis of making individual electors better off.  The result is that people can indeed be persuaded to support the policies, but support for those policies doesn’t lead to support for the political philosophy underpinning them.  And if someone else comes along with a better or more credible offer…
In the same way, many of Plaid’s policies are based, honestly enough, on the sort of society which the party would like to build after independence, but they are, once again, presented on the basis of an appeal to people to think about what might benefit them.  The result is the same – even if the electors support the policies, that support does not translate into support for the underpinning policy, namely independence.
Labour can often sound as if it is offering the benefits of socialism whilst not asking people to buy into the concept, and Plaid as though it is offering the benefits of independence without buying into the concept – what’s not to like about that?  Apart, of course, from the fact that it isn’t credible.  Part of the reason for following such an approach is that many in Labour aren’t socialists at all, just people who believe that the government should provide a few services and act as an occasional referee to the market – and there are, similarly, more than a handful in Plaid who aren’t independentistas, just ardent devolutionists.  But that isn’t the only reason; it’s also to do with the way elections are framed.
The parties do, of course, face a tough dilemma. In an electoral context in which the media are going to present all manifestos as ‘offers’ to the public of what the parties will do for them, it is difficult to move the debate on to a wider question about what sort of society we want to be and how we get there.  For both parties, it would necessarily involve challenging the premise that people are, or should be, driven primarily – or even exclusively – by pursuit of their own selfish personal interests (at best expanded to the interests of their immediate families) rather than by any wider consideration about any greater good.  But failure to challenge that premise serves only to reinforce it, ultimately making the task harder.  The great success of the Tories in modern times isn’t their electoral victories, or the way in which they’ve managed to reverse their predecessors’ policies, but their success in moving the Overton window in their direction.  Parties seeking real change which allow themselves to be constrained – between elections as well as during campaigns – by the outcome of that success have only themselves to blame for their failure.  Real change depends on changing the terms of the debate, not just outbidding other parties.

Thursday 19 December 2019

Getting over it

I’ve fought around 20 elections at different levels as a candidate over the years, winning 7 and losing the rest.  Not the best of records, but from experience I can say that, in most cases, the campaigns have been civilised and friendly, with the candidates able to debate and argue in a reasonably calm fashion as they put their case to the electors.  One or two have been rather more acrimonious, of course, where one or more candidates have been particularly objectionable; but as a general rule, it has been possible to end up on amicable terms, with the losers congratulating the winners and looking forward to the rematch.  I was going to say that it’s a bit like a football game, but football fans are often much more tribal than politicians.
With that as background, it’s easy to see why some would argue that, once the dust has settled, we should all accept that the result is as it is, that it will stand for the relevant term of office, and that we can then play the next round.  It becomes a little harder to do when one or more participants are widely perceived to have lied or cheated their way to a victory however, and the ‘reconciliation’ demanded by the PM has to be seen in that light; if it’s difficult to achieve reconciliation, a large part of that difficulty is down to his own cavalier approach to truth and the normal rules of debate.  In any event, reconciliation does not – and cannot – require that people change their views about future directions, nor that they stop campaigning for them.  After an election in which Party X has lost, no-one seriously expects that it will therefore accept all the policies of Party Y and stop putting forward its own views.  And no-one really expects that the ‘opposition’ will cease to oppose, using all the democratic means at its disposal. There is, in short, a difference between accepting the result of the vote and agreeing with the winners.
Why then do some people’s expectations seem to be so different when it comes to a referendum?  The expectation that those of us on the losing side of the EU referendum in 2016 will somehow ‘get behind’ the result is as silly as expecting those who didn’t vote Tory last week to ‘get behind’ the PM.  I don’t expect those who lost the referendum on establishing the Senedd in 1997 to change their views; they have every right to continue to campaign for its abolition if they wish.  And if the 2016 EU referendum had gone the other way, there would have been plenty who, like Farage, saw it as ‘unfinished business’. 
Part of the underlying debate about the EU (and the Senedd, come to that) is that it goes beyond mere differences about policy and starts to impact on the question of identity.  Many opponents of the Senedd saw it as having an unwanted Welsh identity imposed on them, just as many Brexiters (and, interestingly, they’re often the same people) see the EU as imposing an unwanted European identity on them.  Brexit has, to some extent, been driven by a particular view of what it means to be ‘British’, and a corresponding demand that political structures should both reflect that identity and impose it on others.
One of the major successes of the Good Friday Agreement on Northern Ireland was that it established a framework which allowed people with different identities to co-exist, and structures which enabled different identities to be lived and expressed alongside each other.  It sometimes seems that the demand to ‘get over it’ from the English nationalists driving Brexit implicitly requires an acceptance that our identity is what they say it is – no more, and no less.  It isn’t just the delicate balance in the six counties which is threatened by that attitude.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

One nation?

The term ‘One Nation’ has always been little more than an attempt to mislead, so it is no surprise that the current PM is so keen on it.  Apparently, Disraeli never actually used the term, but he did refer to his perception that the UK was divided between rich and poor, and his paternalistic belief that the better-off have a duty and a responsibility towards the less well-off.  That ‘duty’ is open to different interpretations of course, and which Johnson will favour is yet to be seen.  But it’s already fairly clear that he does not see it in redistributive terms.  He  may be making the right noises about regional disparities, but at the moment that looks more like an attempt to cement his electoral position than a serious attempt to address inequality.
The term ‘One Nation’ could have other implications as well, and his attitude towards devolution in particular, and Wales, Scotland and Ireland in general suggests that he has little time for the idea that nationality and identity are in any way complex, or that anything other than British (for which read English) identity can or should exist in the UK.  (And there is an even more extreme interpretation of being ‘One People’ which has unfortunate historical echoes, to say the least.)
The gulf between the traditional patrician Tory interpretation of the phrase, which is that the government should govern for all with the aim of helping the less fortunate, and the alternative interpretation, which is that all must accept that they are part of what the leader defines that one nation to be is enormous.  I’d like to think that he was talking about the former, but I rather fear that the latter is closer to his view.

Tuesday 17 December 2019

Labour's failure

Whilst ‘Corbyn’ was a factor in what has happened to the Labour Party in recent years, the real malaise goes much deeper than that.  The party’s origins lie in a belief in a different kind of world, founded on socialist rather than capitalist principles.  Defining ‘socialism’ isn’t easy; there seem to be as many definitions as there are people claiming to be socialists, but if I had to draw out just two key elements of what it means to me, I would say that it is to do with the economic power relationships in a society, and with acting collectively rather than competitively.  I think that the party’s founders understood that, and their mission was as much – if not more – about winning people round to that view as it was about seeking power through elections.
It was a worthy mission, but one in which the party ultimately failed totally, moving gradually instead to a more election and power-seeking approach, under which the implementation by the state of the policies put forward by the party was somehow seen as the equivalent of ‘delivering socialism’, leaving the vision thing down to a vague notion that ‘Labour is for the workers’.  But without a change in consciousness, it could never be equivalent.  Whilst the policies put forward might well have been based (most of the time, anyway – I’m not sure that the same could be said for the Blair years, for instance) on at least a partial vision of an alternative world, they have not made much effort to sell that vision, instead relying on the obviously flawed assumption that people voting for the policies are also bought in to the vision.  That is a partial explanation for a situation where the party leadership seems genuinely surprised that people who have historically voted for them in support of that vague notion hold a range of views which are anathema to the leadership.  Jingoism and an aversion to foreigners and immigrants are just two of the factors which seem to have surprised many in Labour; but as anyone who’s ever knocked doors in an election (and I’ve done many thousands in my time) will know, small ‘c’ conservatism is rife amongst the party’s voter base.  It has been ignored as long as they kept putting their crosses in the right boxes but has created a situation in which a switch of loyalties was always possible.
It has all culminated in recent elections in a largely transactional approach to manifestos – vote for us and we’ll give you ‘x’.  It’s not that the policies themselves have been devised free of all vision of an alternative society, it’s more the lack of any attempt to spell out that underlying vision, leaving voters who want to find one to join up the dots themselves.  But worst of all, encouraging voters to see things in such transactional terms – ‘what’s in it for me?’ – plays into the hands of economic conservatives, reinforcing the notion that people can and should act as individuals in pursuit, at all times, of their own personal interests.  For a party which started out believing in collective action to build a different world to end up promoting one of the essential components of the existing one is quite some fall.

Monday 16 December 2019

Labour fight to see who has the loudest voice

In the aftermath of last week’s election, I saw a vox pop from somewhere or other in the north of England in which one gentleman explained that he was a life-long Labour voter who had voted Tory because of Corbyn.  When asked what it was about Corbyn which had led him to that conclusion, he was unable to give much of an answer.  Such brief interviews provide anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, of course, but it does rather look as though ‘Corbyn’ did indeed play a significant role in the outcome, and that those in Labour who are trying to argue that it was all about Brexit and nothing else are somewhat detached from reality.  They’re unlikely to change their minds, though – I have the distinct impression that Labour’s post-election autopsy is going to be more about which faction’s interpretation is shouted the loudest rather than being based on hard data and analysis.
If answering the question, ‘Was Corbyn a factor?’ is easy enough, the ‘why and how?’ are much more difficult questions.  Was it because, as some (even in his own party) are claiming, he was a poor and incompetent leader, was it because of the policies he promoted, or was it because he was demonised in the Tory press?  It’s worth noting that it’s at least possible (or even, as I suspect, highly probable) that all three are true to a greater or lesser extent; there’s nothing mutually exclusive about them.  That won’t stop either his detractors or his fans demanding that others accept their own interpretation of which is correct, making me wonder whether Labour is capable of learning anything from the outcome.
The long-running antisemitism issue may well have been seized on by political opponents who have racism problems of their own seeing an opportunity to promote an anti-Labour narrative, but the way in which the Labour leader responded looked weak, slow and reluctant.  Whether that is fair or unfair is almost irrelevant – it meant that he didn’t give the impression of competence and determination in dealing with the issue.
That he was unfairly smeared and demonised by a section of the press is surely undeniable, as well as being entirely understandable.  Billionaire press barons and their friends who saw him as a threat to their position had every incentive to portray him as a dangerous extremist, and didn’t hesitate to do so, even if a more objective analysis of his policy programme for this election would place him and his party squarely in the mainstream of European social democracy.  But part of what Brexit is – and always has been – about for those most keen on it was taking the UK as far away from that mainstream as possible; it’s part of a long term project of moving the Overton window further in the direction of neo-liberalism.
There’s no doubt that many of the individual policies put forward by Labour were themselves popular, but it looks as if Labour’s ability to deliver them all simply wasn’t believed.  That shouldn’t be surprising – it was a highly ambitious programme, and I have doubted previously whether it was physically do-able.  I wonder, though, whether part of the reason for the public doubt about viability might have been a result of Labour, like the Tories, having spent the last decade promulgating the neo-liberal economic demand that government finances should be balanced.  Suddenly arguing for a programme which implied quite the opposite, whilst still arguing for fiscal rules which suggest that their basic position hasn’t changed looks dishonest.  I doubt that it’s a case of the electorate as a whole doing that economic analysis and reaching a conclusion; more a question of people who have had it drummed into them by Labour and Tory alike that some things are ‘unaffordable’ simply not being in the right frame of mind to believe the opposite.  Moving from ‘two legs bad’ to ‘two legs better’ overnight works in fiction, but not in reality.  There would have been nothing wrong with pivoting the party’s position over the last year or two to an alternative interpretation of macro-economics as a basis for the manifesto commitments, but without doing that, without explaining why so much of the economic establishment is wrong, they failed to lay the groundwork for their own programme.
There is much in what Corbyn has said over the years, as well as in this year’s Labour manifesto, which I could readily support (although there are a few major blind spots, such as the question of nuclear weapons and the support for independence for all nations except Wales and Scotland, to say nothing of Brexit itself).  Whether they have the courage to build on that, or whether the party’s timid careerists will demand a reversion to Tory-lite policies is yet to be seen.  I’m not optimistic.

Saturday 14 December 2019

Elections and mandates

Within the space of a few minutes yesterday, the Tory Party Chair, James Cleverly – a man whose whole life seems to be dedicated to proving that nominative determinism is not a thing – managed to claim both that the Conservative Party (which won 56% of the seats on 43.6% of the vote) had a clear mandate for delivering Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal and that the SNP (which won 81% of the seats in Scotland on 45% of the vote) had no mandate for a second referendum on independence because they didn’t win a majority of the votes.  A mandate is only a mandate when the Tories say so, apparently.
His assertion that the SNP did not have a majority of the popular vote has the merit of being true, but then the Tories didn’t win a majority of the popular vote in the UK as a whole either, a fact which he seems to think irrelevant.  The results overall show, yet again, that there is a problem with the voting system used for parliamentary elections in the UK, in that it does not ensure fair representation of the votes cast; winner takes all in a majoritarian system is not a good way of expressing the ‘will of the people’.  But to the extent that we accept that ‘them’s the rules’, those rules cannot morally be applied selectively.  The fact that they can be legally so applied highlights, yet again, another flaw in the UK’s constitution, namely the belief that parliament’s sovereignty stems from the monarch, not the people.
It seems inevitable that the Scottish government will now demand the power to hold a referendum, and that the PM will, initially at least, refuse it.  Legally, there can be no doubt that he can make that refusal absolute for the whole of his term in office, and perhaps he will, even if it becomes apparent over coming months that such a refusal is fuelling rather than suppressing the demand from Scotland.  That would, though, require him to actually believe in the perpetuation of the union, and there have been scant signs to date that he actually believes in anything other than that he should be PM.  I don’t know what the SNP will do in the face of the initial refusal - they have wisely avoided revealing their next steps to date, but I can’t believe that they will simply say “OK, your call, we’ll go away and forget it then”.  We do know that there is a general lack of concern among the members and supporters of the PM’s party about whether Scotland stays or goes, and if he starts to see a growing demand in Scotland; if Scotland starts to become the same sort of preoccupation which Brexit has been for the past three years; and getting rid of Scotland looks like something that will help to maintain his own grip on Englandandwales, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him changing course.  After all, it’s not as if changing course is unusual for him, is it?

Sunday 8 December 2019

Classic leaflet fail

Yesterday, at last, the long-awaited (I might be exaggerating ever-so-slightly there) Labour Party election leaflet arrived.  This was my favourite part:

Fair play, I thought.  Good point, I thought.  And they’re obviously very serious about it as well – they have repeated the exact same message on all three of the individually-addressed copies of the leaflet sent to the house to make sure that we all understand their seriousness.  But one might be excused for thinking that someone in the campaign team might just have paused for a second and wondered whether this would lead some readers to ask themselves whether they should believe anything else in the leaflet…

Saturday 7 December 2019

How long are the lies good for?

Election promises have always come with caveats and been subject to fudgy wording, but the PM has excelled himself in the number of different categories which he has applied.  The strongest category is, famously, dying in a ditch, and we know from experience that that is good for around 110 days.  Assuming less strong promises are broken more easily and that the additional lifespan of each type of promise is roughly equal, we can calculate how long each type of promise is good for, which gives us a table like this:

Number of days
Expiry Date
27 December
11 January
27 January
12 February
Cast-iron guarantee
28 February
Absolute cast-iron guarantee
15 March
Die in a ditch
31 March

That gives the manifesto a 'use by' date of 31st March and a 'best before' date of 27th December.  So, if you happen to have a copy of the Tory manifesto in your store cupboard, it’s worth bearing in mind that it will probably start to go off before the end of the year.

Thursday 5 December 2019

Trust in liars

An inveterate and pathological liar who can happily say one thing today and the complete reverse tomorrow came to London this week and declared that his country had no interest whatsoever in opening up the NHS to private companies.  His host, another inveterate and pathological liar, who can happily say one thing today and the complete reverse tomorrow said that it didn’t matter what the first liar said, because he would not allow it in any case.  The only surprising thing is that some parts of the media regard the statements of either or both as being enough to settle the argument once and for all.

Wednesday 4 December 2019

A simple fiscal rule

I mentioned yesterday the way in which party manifestos have been criticised by various think tanks over their tax and spending proposals.  It has unfortunately become widely, but erroneously, accepted that government spending is like household spending, and that governments should only spend money which they have first raised through taxation.  For the last few elections, all three of the main UK parties have taken this as being close to gospel and criticised each other for any apparent mismatches, elevating the elimination of the surplus to almost a fetish.  It’s been strange, though, that although it’s the Tories who have pushed this approach most, it is the Tories who also, in practice, have regularly ignored this ‘requirement’, pushing the date at which the budget is balanced ever further into the future, whilst Labour have, rather foolishly, allowed their own economic policies to be defined by this crude and unnecessary approach.  The Tories set a trap and Labour fell for it – maybe not so strange after all, then.
Things look different in this election – the rhetoric about ‘fully-costed’ manifestos is still there, but it all seems half-hearted given that the Tories have thrown their own rules to one side and decided to simply spend more.  Only the Lib Dems are still really hung up about the mad demand that the budget should be balanced, leading them to propose what is probably the stupidest economic policy ever put forward by a major UK party, that the government should run a permanent surplus on its current expenditure budget, regardless of the circumstances at the time.  Richard Murphy sets out some pretty trenchant views on the proposal here, and has a nice graphic from Deficit Owls asking why politicians want to push people into debt here.
There is, and never has been, any need to keep the government’s spending in balance; it is the economy as a whole which needs to be in balance, bearing in mind the various sectors.  The concept of sectoral balances is explained well here with a particularly good graphic, but in essence, a permanent public sector surplus requires a permanent deficit elsewhere, and that essentially means businesses and individuals in the private sector.  Anyone arguing for a public sector surplus needs to be able to explain why a private sector deficit is a good idea, and that’s not an explanation that I’ve heard to date.
All the parties are keen on having, and being seen to have, a set of ‘fiscal rules’, but in practice these are largely ignored.  They’re just window-dressing as an alternative to trying to explain why things don’t work that way.  In reality, the only fiscal rule any government needs is one that says it will do what it considers appropriate in the circumstances which exist at the time.  That’s not much of a rule at all, but any other rule is just a means of trying to hide the fact that government spending is more a matter of ideology than economics.

Tuesday 3 December 2019

'Experts' are not always as independent or objective as is claimed

A feature of the way in which the media report on the manifestos of the various parties is the use of ‘independent’ think tanks to express their opinions.  Thus we have reports like this one in the Guardian, covering the response of the so-called ‘Institute for Financial Studies’, claiming that “neither Tories nor Labour have credible spending plan”, and describing the IFS as a “respected think tank”.  It isn’t just the Guardian, of course – the IFS is regularly quoted by other media including the BBC and treated as an expert source.  I don’t doubt that this makes them ‘respected’; clearly several media sources have a great deal of respect for their work.  Neither do I doubt that they are ‘independent’, at least in the narrow sense of not being affiliated to any of the political parties. 
What they are not, however, is independent of ideology, as Richard Murphy explains here.  The organisation is closely aligned to the neoliberal view of the world, and their analysis starts from a number of assumptions.  The result is that, inevitably, they are predisposed to a particular policy direction, and are critical of proposals which don’t match that ideology.  The fact that, in this case, they end up criticising both Labour and Conservative spending plans might underline their independence from both of those parties, but it also highlights the fact that other interpretations of economics are possible, and increasingly main stream, given that the Tories have (in rhetoric at least, even if not yet in terms of spending levels) moved towards the Labour position in an attempt to win votes.
There is another ‘independent’ think tank, the Resolution Foundation, which is, if anything, even worse but which is also extensively quoted as an ‘expert’ source by the media.  I don’t agree with the Gove position that we have all ‘had enough of experts’, but there is unquestionably a need to apply a critical eye to people who either themselves claim to be experts or else who are presented as experts by those quoting them to ensure that they are really as independent and objective as might at first sight appear – and the media seem remarkably unable to apply that critical approach.  It has become all too easy for people to set up institutes and foundations which look independent and objective yet which, in reality, start from a clear ideological perspective.