Thursday, April 02, 2020

Goodbye to all that

The polls are closed. He's gone by Saturday. We just have to wait for Starmer's certain coronation.

So what's Corbyn's record? 

He won: 
Two leadership elections
The local government elections of 2016 and 2018

He lost: 
The local government elections of 2017 and 2019
The EU referendum
A Parliamentary Party vote of no confidence
The European elections
Two general elections.

A comprehensive failure.

There was a moment of hope. In 2017 Labour lost nothing like as badly as expected. A late surge deprived the Tories of a majority. Labour hadn't won, but the party held a potential Parliamentary veto if May's agreement with the DUP failed. When it did and when Johnson took the leadership, the Tory majority vanished. Labour could control Parliament.

2017 was Labour's great chance. It needed to build on its gains, heal the party and build a coalition. So what did it do? Continued with the factionalism, sank into a swamp of anti-semitism and drove away Jewish MPs, ran a central administration based on nepotism and bullying with key posts filled by upper-class Stalinists, covered up sexual harassment, ignored its members over Brexit, but then released fanatical and deranged loyalists to abuse its critics.

The collapse of May's government, together with Johnson's ruthlessness towards his opponents in his own party, left the Tories as a minority government. There was now a Parliamentary coalition capable of commanding a majority. It would be able to remove Johnson and call a second EU referendum. Corbyn was the obstacle to activating it. Then, in the most astonishing act of stupidity, ignoring all advice and all polling evidence, he decided to give Johnson the one thing he wanted most, an election - an election held on the terms and at the time the Tories wanted.  Corbyn chose to agree to one despite his personal approval polling standing at minus 60% - an unprecedented level of unpopularity. He took the wrong lesson from 2017 and was convinced that he would sweep to power on another late surge. An incoherent manifesto and an incompetent campaign later, we see his legacy. A Tory landslide, Labour with the fewest seats since 1935, and Britain out of the European Union. It's fair to say that without Corbyn's leadership, none of these would have happened.

Corbyn's decision to facilitate an election was not just stupid, it was criminal.

Losing was a collective failure too. Labour has never been ruthless enough to remove an unpopular leader. Corbyn could never have won, that was always certain. He had no appeal outside the party and was broadly disliked. Someone else could have given the poll a good go. And a wise leader would have waited until after Brexit had been resolved. To a disengaged public, he didn't look like a credible Prime Minister. This was obvious in 2015. His election was a bizarre choice that rested far more on the sentimentality of Labour members than on the judgement of those who had to face the electorate.

He hasn't just been a disaster for the country, but for the left as well. Leftists saw this as their chance and lined up to defend the wrong leader. It was obvious to anybody who was mentally honest that, regardless of his politics, Corbyn didn't have the ability to do the job. The issue of his competence never went away. His inevitable failure was an existential threat to the left. As were his absurd cultish followers. They came over as aggressive, abusive, and unpleasant. A populist strategy that divided the world into villains, victims, and the virtuous could never appeal to people who didn't see themselves as victims and viewed these people as anything other than virtuous.

The whole farrago reminded me of Jonathan Rose writing about why the Communist Party got so little support amongst the British working classes.
Put bluntly, the trouble with Marx was Marxists, whom British workers found to be dogmatic, selfish, and antiliterary ... British working people judged Marxism by the Marxists they knew and concluded, with good reason, that such people were not going to make a better world.
The very moment the left won within the party, they blew it. They rallied round the wrong people, purely because of their identity.

But the left had other problems. It hadn't prepared. It hadn't renewed itself. There was little new thinking. The sectarian left had been comfortable as a minority opposition to the mainstream, while it persisted in its orthodoxies. Marginalisation suited it. It reassured leftists of their virtue without them having to carry the burdens of responsibility. Intellectually locked in to their defeats in the 1980s, they only saw this as an opportunity to refight them. To his credit, McDonnell did try and move economic policy towards different models of ownership, but there was no coherent narrative of the type that wins elections, not that they had the public's trust anyway.

The left needs an intellectual project. Unimaginative nostalgia and token giveaways to the middle classes would never cut it. It needs to junk the campist nonsense that saw it fawning over foreign tyrannies and the theocratic far right, while welcoming in the anti-semites. It needs a new political economy for changing times. And activists have to remember that this is not a performance for their own benefit, it is not a form of personal gratification. Self-indulgence loses elections.

Corbyn's leadership was a painful lesson in political realities. In 2015 I thought the party would be facing a big defeat this year if it hadn't ditched him by now. We should have been facing an election as the Cameron government's five-year-term came to an end this May. Instead, Cameron caused an unnecessary constitutional mess over Brexit and the crushing defeat came early.

Today, there is a national crisis. We are locked down by a pandemic. We are out of the European Union. And looming is the colossal self-imposed damage of leaving the single market and customs union. In such a crisis, Labour should speak for the nation, not lecture it for its stupidity in not voting for a leader that it did not want and was prepared to tell anyone who listened that they did not want. That's the tragedy. Defeat was utterly predictable. It was also preventable if the party had listened and taken action. Listening is something that the new leader needs to do right away. The alternative is oblivion.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Viral nonsense

I was supposed to be going to Greece in a week's time. Flights were cancelled and travel advice changed, so I am locked out of my Greek home and into my Manchester one. I had no choice, but it felt wise. Coming from this country, with its lax approach to the contagion, I would be a risk to others. But I can't help but cast a wistful glance at my Greek life and be impressed by Greece's serious and rigorous reaction to the pandemic.

Greeks are locked down and restricted, but what of Britain today. It's the country without bog roll (except in millions of domestic cupboards, safely under lock and key). It's a nation of panic buyers (try and find butter, pasta, tinned food, and other basics in big supermarkets. Try and find paracetamol anywhere). And we're a people that loves nothing more than to squeeze into confined spaces and gather in crowds when told not to. This is a nation unaware of the risks it faces. It's also a country with a hesitant government, slowly abandoning a policy, which was always an outlier, once the consequences of hundreds of thousands of additional deaths became clear. It's a country cursed by an unserious and insubstantial prime minister who won power by imposing a disaster and is now mismanaging a catastrophe.

As for the people, panic and confusion was inevitable. We have always scoffed at public information campaigns. The difference this time is that there aren't any to scoff at. It's an extraordinary failure of government. In a vacuum only partly filled with Johnsonian waffle, we have become a contradictory mess of fear, ignorance, and resentment. British stoical stiff-upper-lip resilience, as romanticised in popular history, is either fictional or a mixture of complacency and fatalism. It was invoked endlessly to assure us that the disruption of a no-deal Brexit would bet met with calm determination by a special people. Who now thinks that Britain can take it? Who now wants to follow one vast economic disruption with another in December?

Alex Andreou is stranded too. He is in a surreal Greece, quietened by a full social lockdown. It has given him time to write a splendid piece contrasting the two countries. He makes a telling observation.
... Britain finds itself under attack from two pandemics: Covid-19 and a plague of inane punditry.
He could have added the word profitable. There's a good living to be earned from dismissing reality. He attacks the right, but could have just as easily included a leftist strand too. It fits Harry G Frankfurt's definition of bullshit perfectly. 
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.
It's not the same as lying.
The bullshitter ... does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
It's a way of talking with authority and conviction from a position of near total ignorance, thereby hiding your inexpertness from both your audience and yourself. The bullshitter does not lack confidence. As for the recipient of it, you pick your ideology and choose your bullshit according to your preconceptions. It's comforting rather than challenging. You can believe the current pandemic is overhyped or apocalyptic, you can think it will change nothing or will change everything, you can hope for a cure and vaccine or despair that we are doomed to an eternity without football. And whatever you instinctively think, there will be a bullshitter waiting to convince you that you are right.

At a time like this, we need to hear from virologists and epidemiologists. They will not give us the simple solutions we would prefer to hear. They may not be comforting or certain. They may well insist that we do things that we really don't want to do. But they will be informed, knowledgeable, and expert. They know what they are talking about. We need experts. We really need experts.

Initially, our government did not follow the policy of other countries. It did so with a sense of superiority. It was a little unnerving, and partly convincing, until it fell apart after a critical analysis of the consequences from Imperial College, London. 250,000 dead was sobering. But why did we go down that route in the first place? It's puzzling until you realise that both our Prime Minister, together with the powerful Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, were opinion columnists. They were professional bullshitters. They have both been advised by the unelected power behind the throne, the arch-bullshitter Dominic Cummings. The core of government is Vote Leave; a campaign which paid no attention to truth at all and has lumbered us with a mad act of self-harm driven by dubious ideology. Bullshit is the essence of our government. Now it is payback time. Reality is knocking.

Reality has a habit of doing this. For anti-vaccination loons, this is what a world without vaccines looks like; for Corbynistas, yes that was a catastrophic election defeat; for eugenicists casually disregarding deaths, here are a quarter of a million of them for you to handle the consequences. We will move back into line with others with far more stringent measures because we have to. The bullshitters will continue to claim that it was the plan all along. They won't be lying, because truth has never bothered them. I doubt that it ever will. But the consequences of their illusions certainly will.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Government by delusion

This is good from Tom McTague in the Atlantic. He shows that the confrontation between the government and the civil service is structural and ideological.
The row also reveals the deeper philosophy of Brexit, which drives this Johnson administration and has yet to be fully grasped by those who routinely show exasperation at its apparent refusal to listen to expert advice. Johnson, they say, is pursuing a future that makes no sense, one in which sovereignty is prioritized over economic alignment with the EU, meaning that Britain will be poorer than it needs to be. 
But this misunderstands the core of the Johnson-Cummings project. It is not that they disagree with experts’ forecasts, or that they are attempting to be populist. They actively reject this model of government, believing it to be systemically and empirically flawed. They argue that Britain needs to free itself from centralized bureaucratic control, rather than rely on it, to be able to react both to domestic crises and the ever-changing international environment. This is a project to remake Britain into a country agile enough to adapt quickly to the dramatic change that is inevitable and unpredictable, not to perfect an existing system that avoids unwanted shocks.
This is the central assumption. Whereas the government is about delivering "the kind of change voters want," bureaucracy is about frustrating it to protect the status quo. The trouble is, it's bollocks. But it's seductive enough bollocks to base a long-running comedy series on it. This is not about what voters want, it's about what rulers want. They are projecting their ideology on to voters in order to justify it. At best, the statement should read 'what many voters want, but many others oppose.' That's why the Cummings theory of government is anti-democratic. Democracy accepts dissent as legitimate, feels it should be listened to and accommodated. Sometimes the protection of minorities should overrule the will of majorities. Democracy is slow, can be cautious, but democracies can also act decisively in response to a crisis and, because of their very nature, can effectively mobilise consent for emergency actions. 

The Cummings approach to government is ludicrous. Reality conflicts with it daily. Look at the tardy response to recent shock events - flooding and the coronavirus pandemic. This is a political failure, not an administrative one. An inadequate political class is throwing blame around to avoid responsibility for its own failings.

The likes of Cummings are in thrall to any fashionable nonsense that panders to their narcissism and inflated egos. Only 'weirdos,' 'blue sky thinkers,' 'people who work outside the box,' and the like, have any value. Those who are still in touch with reality are the enemies of these visionaries. And so, they must be sidelined and disposed of to promote the "agility" of this new elite. Of course, the biggest enemies of all are the institutions of representative democracy. There's nothing new about this. It's the currency of authoritarianism throughout history.

What we are seeing is a crisis of the Conservative party. It has abandoned conservatism. It has embraced the cranks and loons, a disparate collection of right-wingers who had been hanging about on the fringes for years. Brexit has been their vehicle for power. Sceptics, the real conservatives, have been expelled or consigned to the margins. The ascendent faction is a destructive force, not just wrecking our place in Europe, but dismantling liberal democratic institutions. It claims the old mantle of the 'man of action,' sees bullying as a virtue, opposition as a sign of the unworthiness of opponents, and is convinced of its own doubt-free rectitude. Nothing must constrain its freedom of action.

All the institutions of the post-war settlement are under attack. All are seen as opponents of this right-wing ascendancy, the ones who would restrict its power to do something stupid. They must go - the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC, Parliament, and, of course, the European Union. This rightist ideology would dismantle all the collectivist institutions that have underpinned an enduring consensus, including the NHS. These bodies might be stuffy and unglamorous, but they can save us from the serial stupidities of ideologues who think they know best. They need to be defended from the attack by these rebels against reality.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What a state to be in

Anarchism is an odd academic specialism to have. I often get thought of as an anarchist, whereas I am really an interested bystander. I always think that anarchism provides insights, rather than specific programmes, and those insights are valuable to anyone who is interested in politics. One thing it does lead to is a scepticism of the nation state. The anarchist rejection of government never meant that there would not be any political and economic social units, just that they were not to be conventional states. Anarchists proposed multiple forms; producer co-operatives, mutualist associations, labour syndicates, autonomous cities, extensive property rights, communal self-regulation, bio-regions, and etc. Whatever their chosen unit, anarchists often placed them within larger collaborative structures, such as Proudhon's Federalism. As per the slogan coined by the ecological anarchist, Patrick Geddes, they 'think global, act local.' The sense of global interconnectedness runs through anarchist thought.

I thought of this as I read a curious libertarian Brexiter article in the Telegraph by Allister Heath (£). It helps explain why Brexiters continue to be angry and rant about the EU even though we have left. They want to destroy the EU permanently - for everyone. Their argument is that a world of independent nation states alone, without any supra-national organisation, is the best form of political and economic organisation. The result of this thinking is that the destruction of the EU will liberate everyone.

It's a curious argument. Its universalism about the benign nature of the nation state is ahistorical. Its utopianism is unrelated to historical experience. Given that Brexit has made other Europeans shudder and has increased the EU's legitimacy amongst member states, as well as its attractiveness to those outside, it looks like a piece of wishful thinking. A controversial, non-consensual win in the UK does not make it a global model to be followed by everyone. Elsewhere, the Eurosceptic movement is minuscule and the EU has never been more popular.

The article shows that right-wing libertarians have made their peace with nationalism. It's curious, because nationalism is a collectivist doctrine. Heath's argument, like much of Euroscepticism, rests on a category error. There are two classic ideas in liberal thought describing the origins and nature of a social contract underlying the modern state. That of Hobbes is based on the willingness of people to place themselves under the power of an absolute ruler to enforce peace, while the version derived from Locke sees the social contract as a voluntary association constructed out of the rule of law and democratic governance. Brexiters see the EU as the former, its supporters as the latter.

Heath's celebration of the nation state as the only form of sustainable political organisation leads Brexiters into contradictions. The EU is at once a Hobbesian leviathan, a centralised authoritarian beast, but also weak, unstable and on the point of collapse. Both versions can sometimes appear in the same sentence. This is why they portray Brexit as liberation. The problem is that it's a mirror image of reality. The EU is a federal organisation of democratic states that is not independent of its members wishes. It has a limited area of legal competence, defined by treaty, and a functioning elected parliament. Membership of the EU means shared sovereignty and collective decision making in defined areas, but not unconditional submission to authority. However, it is powerful in protecting and advancing its members' interests through collective organisation and in accordance with the mandate given by its member states. This power is something the UK is about to experience in negotiations. Unsurprisingly, a comparatively small single nation is guaranteed to be the weaker party. The EU's federalism may not be the same as Proudhon's, but it is nothing like the Eurosceptic fiction.

Heath and others have resurrected the old 19th century liberal panacea of the self-determination of nations. And in doing so, they haven't addressed the mixed history of nationalism and national liberation. It is true that national statehood has been a way of rescuing the persecuted and freeing peoples from tyranny (Heath supports Kurdish independence, alongside the very different cases of Catalonia and Scotland), but there is no guarantee that the result will be democratic and liberal. Post-colonial states have relapsed into bloody tyrannies. National territories are not ethnically homogenous and minorities have been persecuted, expelled, and killed. With each nation comes the concept of treason, and with it the identification of groups of people as existential enemies (see this fine piece on Hindu nationalism for example). Then there is Rummel's concept of Democide, based on the statistics that show that far more people have been killed by their own state in the 20th century than have died in international wars. National self-determination has a very mixed record, hence the perceived need for supra-national organisations to mediate and protect citizens.

The EU was created as a response to the two world wars. Both were the result of catastrophic failures of nationalism. But let's not forget that they were also due to failures of other attempts at international collaboration. The balance of powers failed. Deterrence failed. Appeasement failed. Collective security through the League of Nations failed. The EU was a conscious attempt to avoid those failures by building a regional alliance based on economic self-interest and administered by an agreed legal framework overseen by national governments and a democratic parliament. So far, it's been a success. And it is this incremental, voluntary, and limited federation that Heath wants to overthrow in favour of something that has a history of collapsing into local and global bloody conflict.

It might sound odd, but anarchists had a far more realistic appreciation of the nature of nation states and the need for international cooperation than Daily Telegraph columnists. But then Brexit wants to replace a fictitious European Union with an even more fictitious nationalist utopia. And in an increasingly interdependent world, we are the ones paying the price.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

History matters

If there is one post that is essential reading, it's this from the historian Robert Saunders, the author of a comprehensive study of the 1975 referendum on membership of the then EEC, Yes to Europe!  In it, he describes the structural reasons why the UK decided to seek membership, eventually succeeding in 1973.
Membership provided an answer to three fundamental questions about Britain’s role in the world, which reached a crisis in the years after 1945. First, how could Britain maintain its prosperity, as a declining industrial power that had lost its colonial markets? Second, how could it project power in the world, once it had lost its empire and its global military reach? Third, how could Britain preserve its sovereignty, in an increasingly globalised world? Put differently, how could Britain ‘take back control’, at a time when it seemed to be leaking sovereignty to the currency markets, to the International Monetary Fund, and to big trading blocs that were setting the rules of world trade? 
From 1961 to 2016, every government (whether Conservative or Labour) started from three basic assumptions: that the best way to rebuild Britain’s economic strength was as the entry-point to an integrated, European market; that the surest route to influence in Washington or the Commonwealth was through a leadership role in Europe; and that the best way to maximise British sovereignty was to have a seat at the table where its destiny would be decided.
Those existential problems still exist. To leave the EU means that we have to once again to find solutions to the problems that membership had effectively addressed; prosperity, power, and sovereignty. The pre-73 past was not some sort of golden age. It was a period of British decline and global weakness. So, what are we going to do? We are leaving an economic superpower and intending to erect trading barriers with it. We are abandoning our European leadership role as one of 'the big three' decision makers. We have removed ourselves from the decision making structures that will inevitably shape much of our economic life. How are they to be replaced?

The answer given in Johnson's bizarre and rambling Greenwich speech appears to be little more than an atavistic assertion of British greatness, rooted in some abstract idea of a national character. The specifics are much harder to see, probably because they don't exist. The Brexiter case would have more merit if it had addressed these issues in terms other than those that guarantee failure - wishful thinking combined with over-confidence.

Intentionally damaging our economy and sitting outside regional power structures in a globalised economy and interdependent world, is not wise. This is why we will be drawn back into some sort of association with the EU, and probably try and regain our membership. It remains the best available answer to our permanent existential dilemmas. They will not go away, and neither will the EU.

Friday, January 31, 2020

A black day

No state in the modern era has committed such a senseless act of self-harm. Brexit will make Britain poorer; the British government’s own analysis predicts as much. But the real impoverishment is far broader. Its citizens’ freedoms will be curtailed. Its voice in the international arena will be weakened. Its reputation as an open, forward-looking country will be diminished.
And whatever you do read this from Chris Grey. Here's a taste.
... Britain has made an historic strategic error, leaving it poorer and weaker. It is a strategic error without even being a strategic decision. Unlike the day that Britain joined what became the EU, which was the outcome of years of careful planning and statecraft, today has come about by a series of accidents and mistakes, and an epic failure of political leadership. To undertake it in the absence of any clear national consensus is profoundly dangerous and irresponsible.


And now watch this.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Paradoxes

Paradox number one, from Fintan O'Toole:
Revolutions unleash euphoria because they create tangible images of change and inaugurate, at least in the fevered minds of their supporters, a new epoch. Brexit can’t do either of these things. The problem with a revolt against imaginary oppression is that you end up with imaginary freedom.
He's right. On the day we leave, bongless but with god knows what sad gimmick to accompany a fascist knees-up in central London, nothing will happen. Obviously, we enter transition, but even after that is over, the great moment of liberation will not come. That's because we are not oppressed. We are not 'ruled by Brussels' we are one of the most powerful members of a supra-national organisation managing the largest and most effective free trade area in the world. We jointly run Brussels and are not run by it. Neither is the EU imposing a neoliberal hegemony. We are giving up power in the name of sovereignty, and thereby losing sovereignty because we lose the power to decide the rules that govern our trade. 

The second is from Chris Grey.
It is one of the biggest paradoxes of Brexit, because most of those who understand what it entails at a practical level do not support it, whilst most of those who support it strongly do not understand what it entails at a practical level.
Now, it is perfectly reasonable that you and I would find the complexities of international trade baffling. But I would expect that those who advocate a dramatic course of action should actually know something about it. Given the contradictory, and often crazy, statements coming out of government at the moment, I'm not sure they do. What can you make of Javid's comment on regulatory divergence that would wipe out whole swathes of manufacturing and services? Does he mean it? Does he understand it? I might have problems with the details, but he's the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

This is a brilliant must read from Ian Dunt, explaining the issues that have to be addressed. It's a long, and extremely clear Q and A. That's what the government has to get to grips with.

These paradoxes are probably why Brexiters are still angry and resentful. They like the idea of Brexit, but dislike the consequences. That's why they throw the blame for everything at the EU or remainers.

Zombie Brexit will happen. It will happen despite the fact that polls and voting show that a majority opposes it. It will happen despite it being rejected by all the devolved assemblies of the UK's constituent nations, raising the prospects of a constitutional crisis. It is the English alone that are ensuring it happens. This makes it less an act of English nationalism than one of English imperialism.  Even its claim to democratic legitimacy has crumbled. People are losing their jobs. Business is already divesting. The costs are escalating. The damage is already occurring. It can never deliver what it promised because it is based on an ideological fiction. Now that fiction has to face reality.

On 1st February we will have completed the easy bit. Yes, that's all. What comes next is far more difficult. Expect the same stupid statements, wild rhetoric, crazed nationalism and all that goes with it. Expect too, the climb-downs, u-turns, and sophistries. We have no idea what will happen. The government seems to be rushing into this phase without a clear idea of the final destination - again. Don't expect a sudden catastrophe or vast recession, the economy will still grow, but by nothing like the rate it should. There will be a slow erosion of jobs together with gradual business closures and relocations. Nobody is anticipating any benefits. And after the transition, Britons without dual citizenship will find themselves as second class citizens in a Europe where they were once one of the lucky elite. (And if you doubt that, look at the money that the wealthy are paying to secure EU passports).

The best we can hope for is damage limitation as reality confronts belief. Reality always wins in the end, but when the end comes depends how strong that belief is. Boris Johnson thought that leading the losing leave side in the referendum would be his passport to the leadership. Winning the referendum instead nearly wrecked him. He now has what he craved, but at a price. The price is that he has to implement a catastrophe of his own making. We will have to wait and see, powerless to do more than wince in pain. And whatever you do, don't mention Gibraltar. Nobody seems to.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Contrasts

However much we may dissect policy or discus technicalities, sometimes politics is emotional, based on a sense of who we are and who we want to be. It's about what we find instinctively attractive. Here are two speeches in the European Parliament.

This is what we are leaving behind.



The second is what we are staying with. You can watch Ann Widdecombe's speech if you have the stomach for it. I can't bear to post it. You will have to follow the link. She spews out hatred for foreigners (aka free movement - a reciprocal right, something she ignores) in a furious response to a request that Britain does what the Leave campaign actually promised to do during the referendum. It's English nationalism in the raw - contemptuous, paranoid, triumphalist, and immensely stupid. It's hateful, gut-wrenchingly hateful, and not wholly sane.

When nationalism has been unleashed in the past, it has destroyed Europe. It has committed genocide. It has smashed communities. It has spread misery. The EU is a conscious attempt to defuse the poison by brining independent nations together in a community. It's about taming and controlling political nationalism, not the impossible utopianism of the abolition of nations.

This is why I am an instinctive European. It's something that I feel as much as think. I am drawn to the open, inclusiveness of the EU, regardless of the institutional framework. I am a European. It is my identity, just as much as is my Englishness.

And so, at the end of this month, I will be one of the people who will be heartbroken. I will be devastated, as much for the future of my country as for myself. And I fear for our entry into the darkness of a malign nationalism. It is why I hope that Reintke is right and that we will return. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The dunces' decade

"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ..."

***

I've always loved the opening to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, even though the novel is not one of my favourites. It captures the ambiguity of revolution perfectly. It's being revived as the theme for a TV advert for BT. I'm not a purist, I am delighted to see good literature made visible, even in this way. It may make some people read. And it got me thinking about the decade we have just lived through and how we would describe it. Could we use the same literary device?

It was the era of idiocy and the era of ... er ... more idiocy.
It was ... no, that's about it. Idiocy. We are living in an idiotcracy.

Anyone who writes a history of the 2010s in the future could do a lot worse than call it, WTF were they thinking of?

Anyway, let's try and write a brief chronicle of the politics of the decade.

The 2010 general election was held in the wake of the financial crisis and at the tail end of the New Labour governments. It resulted in a hung parliament, partly as a result of a Liberal Democrat surge on a raft of left leaning policies. Then the Lib Dems destroyed themselves by going into coalition with the Conservatives, putting Cameron in power, and instantly reneging on their promise to abolish university tuition fees. There was no way back after that. WTF were they thinking of?

The government's response to the effects of the crash was not to continue with the mild stimulus that had stopped the global economy grinding to a halt, but to cut spending, do enormous damage to public services, halt the recovery, and let the Liberal Democrats take most of the flak. WTF were they thinking of?

The 2015 general election, partly as a result of the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, gave the Conservative Party its first majority for 18 years. Cameron had a problem with fringe eurosceptic loons in his party and UKIP outside. He was certain that the one thing that Britain must not do was to leave the European Union. So, to make sure that it wouldn't happen, he called a referendum on whether it should or not. Without any safeguards. Parliament voted for one. It was advisory, but Cameron insisted that the government would treat it as binding. He lost. WTF were they thinking of?

Labour's response to its 2015 defeat was to elect a new leader using a mad method that gave a vote to anyone prepared to pay £3. MPs nominated someone for the shortlist who they didn't want to win. He won. He was an elderly backbencher of no discernible ability and with no record of achievement of anything other than support for anti-Western dictatorships and dodgy violent movements, expressed together with his visceral hatred of the State of Israel. He had never held a cabinet or shadow cabinet post in thirty plus years, with good reason. But he became a symbol of the left and the object of a bewildering cult of personality. Those of us who pointed out that not only was the emperor naked, but he also had an unsightly skin complaint and poor personal hygiene, were abused and cast into the outer darkness. Labour lost every election - local, European, and general - that he led them in to. He was hailed as a saint. WTF were they thinking of?

2016 and the new Conservative PM, Theresa May, announced that "Brexit means Brexit" as a way of not telling anyone what Brexit meant. Parliament voted to invoke Article 50 without knowing what Brexit meant either. It turns out it meant something that the Leave campaign promised would not happen. Then in 2017 she called a general election to increase her majority and lost it. She shored up a minority government with the only Northern Ireland party to oppose the Good Friday Agreement. WTF were they thinking of?

I can't possibly track the humiliations that led to May's resignation and her replacement by a man universally acknowledged as unfit to be PM, who illegally prorogued parliament and failed to resign for a resigning matter. Having lost his majority, only one thing could have saved him, a general election against a divided opposition. The opposition could have blocked it. They didn't. They gave it to him. And remained divided. WTF were they thinking of?

And now we stand on the threshold of a new decade. It will begin with a pointless and expensive act of self-harm, from which recovery will be difficult. And with our absurd, deeply unserious, and dishevelled Prime Minister begging for money - "bung a bob for a Big Ben bong" - to fund repairs to the clapper of Big Ben so that it can ring out to celebrate an event that more than half the population don't want to happen. That's how far we have sunk.

Things can only get better. Perhaps.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Happy New Year?

The start of a new decade doesn't fill me with optimism. Britain has a new Conservative government with a secure majority and is about to leave the EU. I can't remember any government winning a comfortable majority by pledging to make the worst mistake any government has made since the Second World War. What's more, they are making this mistake by mistake. A referendum called to cement our place in the EU, ended up legitimating the fringe idea of leaving it. Claims of democracy ring hollow, as Chris Grey comments:
We have just had an election campaign in which Johnson made ‘getting Brexit done’ the central theme. Yet, as pointed in a previous post, he avoided saying almost anything about how it would be done – and neither the opposition parties nor the media were able to pin him down.
So he will now claim a mandate from voters for doing it any way he wants. It is a travesty of democracy, which replicates the way that during the Referendum Brexiters refused to tell voters what they were voting for, only to define it later and claim it as the ‘will of the people’.
And that's without the obvious point that the leave vote was smaller than the remain vote.

So how did we get here? For much of 2019 it appeared that remain was winning. The Tories had no majority and another election was not due for another two years. As a policy, leave is dead. It has nothing to offer and is based on fictions. Any majority it once had is gone, and will diminish further due to simple demographics, with an overwhelming remain majority amongst the young. The People's Vote campaign mobilised huge anti-Brexit demonstrations across the country. There is little enthusiasm for Brexit and no national consensus. It will be a continuing sore in British politics. It's a personal disaster for me with my life lived partly in Greece, it's a comprehensive defeat for the left, and it's an absolute catastrophe for the country. Yet the European cause has lost. It was in a position to win in Parliament, but threw it away. Or to be more precise, it was the stupidity of two party leaders who threw it away.

Best for Britain have tweeted a Private Eye article based on their research and activity. They had commissioned massive, detailed, multi-level polling research and reached the conclusion that if the Brexit Party helped the Conservatives, which they did by standing aside in Tory-held seats, then the Conservatives would have a majority of between 40-100. The evidence was compelling, and proved to be spot on. The LibDems refused to believe it, locked into the fantasy that they were about to achieve a massive breakthrough. Best for Britain showed the research to some Labour MPs, who were impressed. Emily Thornberry took it up in the shadow cabinet and tried to argue that Labour's strategy should be to win a second referendum in Parliament and only back a Johnson call for a general election after the referendum had settled Brexit. Given the make-up of Parliament, that was a distinct possibility. She was overruled by Corbyn and Milne. They both believed, against the evidence, that they were on the road to victory. Johnson was given his election, despite the power of the opposition to block it, and his path to a majority was clear.

Why did they do it? Hubris? Over-confidence? Magical thinking? Vanity? Who knows. They were faced by an obvious charlatan and confidence trickster and they fell for his line. They might just as well have signed up to a pyramid scheme. Swinson lost her seat. Corbyn remains leader, at least temporarily, and Milne is still drawing his £100k+ salary, despite being the architect of this disaster. Their collective inadequacy has ruined the country, while their ignominy will be meat and drink to future historians.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Happy Holidays

Merry Christmas to all my reader(s -possibly)

2020 promises so much joy. Brexit and a Johnson government with a secure majority. I can hardly contain my excitement.

And when we leave the EU, we are promised more bloody 50p pieces, the bells of Big Ben ringing out, and a festival of Brexit. What jolly japes.

I think we should have more commemorative events for other such great moments in our proud island history. Such as:

Suez Day - relive the triumph of 1957 and the might of the British Empire.

A Festival of Appeasement - decorate the streets in pieces of paper, celebrate peace in our time, and wait nervously until Nazis bomb the crap out of us.

Lord North Remembrance Sunday - who wanted those American colonies anyway?

To paraphrase Joseph Conrad - "The stupidity ... the stupidity."

Monday, December 16, 2019

Eleven for Christmas

We are now at the post-election phase when people write pieces about how the result proves that whatever they have been saying all along was right and if everyone had done what they said they should, all would be fine.

It's cognitive dissonance. Nature's way of ensuring that we keep making the same mistakes and feel good about it.

So, here is mine.

Rather than say, 'I told you so,' even though I did, here are my ten commandments. There are eleven of them.

1. The press is biased against Labour. Of course it is. You knew that before the election. Don't moan about it now. That's why winning Labour leaders had strategies to deal with it, run by ruthless and effective press officers. Think Joe Haines and Alastair Campbell. Don't think posh apologists for Stalin.

2. Relevant to the above is that study after study shows that propaganda is only effective if it is rooted in either real, lived experience, or in widely held popular prejudices. Attacks on Corbyn were often exaggerated but were not 'smears.' They were mainly true. It's best not to pick a leader who is vulnerable, but if you insist on doing it, be honest and apologise for past 'mistakes'. Don't flood the internet with lies about his saintliness.

3. The electoral system is crap. Again, you knew that before, and you knew that you couldn't change it without winning by it. There is no constitution fairy. You have to plan your strategy around it. That meant not flooding unwinnable seats with resources and not bothering with the ones that you could lose. It also meant not splitting your vote. Johnson got that, winning over the Faragists. So, what did Labour and the Lib Dems do? Slag each other off and run candidates against each other, giving the Tories a large number of seats with small majorities on a minority of the vote. Genius.

4. Don't develop theories without examining the data. The truth is much more complex than the headlines. Really don't. Oh. You have.

5. Know your enemy. Johnson was a terrible candidate in a weak position. He had one strength. He was new. He was the change candidate, even though he wasn't really. The public needed time to see his weaknesses – so you must never give him the advantage of an early election before disillusion sets in. That's why we passed a Fixed Term Parliament Act. Ah.

6. Know your enemy and know yourself. Johnson was a terrible candidate and his strategists knew it. Corbyn was an even worse one, and Johnson's strategists knew that too. It might have seemed a weakness to have hidden Johnson away in a cupboard, but it was canny. It meant the election became about Corbyn. And because of his vanity and hubris, Corbyn welcomed it. Except that he was generally loathed and ridiculed. An election about Corbyn was lost from day one.

7. Don't think the election result was determined by your pet hobbyhorse, even if it was. For example, I have never seen a Lexiter, who says that if we had supported leave we would have won, explain what would have happened with the 70% of Labour voters who voted remain. How about taking a decision based on your judgement of the national interest and explain and defend it clearly, preferably without patronising people?

8. Don't fudge vital issues, it makes you look as if you don't know what you are doing. OK. You really don't know what you are doing, I get that, but don't make it look as if you don't.

9. Don't ignore the data if you don't like it. Labour were given extensive polling and intelligence from their key constituencies. All said that they were in deep trouble and were going to lose big. So, what did they do? You guessed right.

10. When looking to elect a new leader to sort out this horrible mess, just remember that authority trumps authenticity.

11. Clarity beats complexity in any campaign. Don't offer a jumble of policies – fix on one or two clear, decisive pledges, like, er, 'Get Brexit done.' Oh dear.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Failure

Let's be clear to begin with. The real blame for this mess lies with Cameron. The Tories have had a majority for only two out of the last twenty three years and in those two years they unleashed chaos. They have been unjustly rewarded for it.

Second, let's not forget that the referendum campaign was flooded with lies and illegalities, the election campaign was worse, more cynical, and showed a flagrant disregard for the normal rules of democratic conduct.

Institutions were not up to the job. The electoral system is utterly dysfunctional - delivering majorities to minorities. Voting looks to have matched remain/leave polling. The referendum result was reversed in votes, but has delivered a huge majority to the main leave party.

These factors are real enough.

But for every success there is a failure in an electoral zero sum game. This has been a colossal failure of the opposition.

The usual sources on social media will be working on their excuses. They will blame the electorate – thick; the media – biased; billionaires – corrupt; Blairites - red Tory weasels; Brexit - turning people away from the true faith; and, on the fringes, Israel – secretly controlling the world. Once you cease to be an obnoxious teenager, you start to take responsibility for your own actions. Or you should. Some never do. Cue Corbynistas.

People like me called him out as not up to it from the very beginning. The 2017 election was a bit of a reprieve. I waited for some rebuilding, a bit of inclusivity, and a reflection on where we go from here. It never happened.

Brexit was important. The 2017 Labour manifesto said that Labour would impose a hard Brexit. Remainers didn't believe it. I had to show one person the page in the manifesto and he still refused to accept it. The Party and voters were overwhelmingly pro EU. It was time for clarity. Instead, the Brexit cabal of Corbyn and his pet Stalinists - Milne, Murray, and McCluskey - had to be dragged towards unconvincing ambiguity. If you pretend to support two mutually contradictory sides, you end up being mistrusted by both.

It was also a time for decisive leadership. Labour had to commit to a position based on principle. It should have committed to remain and explained why - consistently and forcibly. People respect courage and reason. The minority of older Labour leave voters may have wanted Brexit, but if remain had been explained, not just in economic terms of the damage it would do, but in the good old-fashioned language of Labour patriotism, of solidarity, of the power and prestige of the nation leading the continent, the argument would have been respected. But if, and only if, they respected the person delivering the message. Corbyn was loathed by them. He poisoned remain. Even though he was a secret leaver, he had no credibility with leave either. Polls and canvassing had shown that for years, but still Labour persisted with a leader who could not lead.

In the meantime, May went down to an historic Commons defeat – three times. Vote of no confidence called? Nope. Johnson illegally prorogued Parliament. Vote of no confidence called? Nope. Then there was the agreement for a temporary unity government to bring down Johnson and launch a second referendum before calling a general election. The crisis would be resolved. What happened to that one? Well, the deal was that an elder statesman, and someone who was not a party leader and had no career ambition, would become temporary Prime Minister. Corbyn insisted it should be him, despite not fitting the bill and being unable to command the confidence of other parties and independents. He killed it. Even then, a vote of no-confidence would have given a hiatus that would have given him the first pick of trying to gain a majority. Was one called – even in these extreme circumstances? Nope. Johnson lost his majority and was there for the taking. What did Corbyn do? Nothing. The only thing that Johnson desperately craved was an election where he could turn a minority of votes into a majority in Parliament and avoid any scrutiny. At last, Labour resisted. Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act they had a veto. No election was due until 2022. Johnson was cornered. Then, the day after voting to deny him an election, Corbyn overrode dissent in his own party and gave Johnson what he wanted. An election. On the day Johnson wanted. And before Labour had selected all its candidates, when the Party machinery was creaking under the strain of the anti-Semitism scandal, and when Corbyn himself had an approval rating of minus 60. Yes, minus 60. The worst personal polling in history. Great. It was suicidal.

The last chance was an electoral alliance. Both Swinson and Corbyn failed. It would have been difficult for Swinson because many had joined her side because of their loathing of Corbyn. Both decided to fight their corner when the situation called for unity. Once again, antipathy to Corbyn was the block. The result was a split anti-Tory vote in many constituencies.

Corbyn, a marginal backbencher, supporter of any grotesque tyranny that would oppose the West, a man without any substantial achievement to his name in 35 years in Parliament, was thrown into the leadership as a symbol of the left. The collective of the Labour Party became subsumed under the cult of personality of a mediocrity. Corbyn worship depoliticised the Party. It didn't matter what he did, how much he backtracked, how shallow his politics were, how shameful the growth of anti-Semitism, none of it mattered. All his followers did was lie about his dubious past. He became above scrutiny. His Labour opponents failed in their duty to free us from this baleful leadership.

It's now complete. He has lost every national election during his time as leader. The lot. And this time he has lost to a completely unfit Conservative party at a critical time in the nation's history. I don't think it will be on Corbyn's conscience. He strikes me as too self-righteous for that. But it should be on all his supporters'. This wasn't just a failure of one man. Political hobbyists indulged their fantasies, elevated someone manifestly incapable, never bothered that he said little other than platitudes, ignored the evidence of his unpopularity that was there in abundance, and weren't put off by an overwhelming vote of no-confidence by the Parliamentary Party. At that point, Corbyn should have resigned. He didn't and his admirers voted him back in, while sharing ever more ridiculous and dishonest memes about his virtue. And the stench of anti-Semitism was embraced and replicated with relish.

Please learn. Never abandon critical faculties in the face of a cult of personality. Left populism is as malign as right populism. Progress isn't a matter of 'bad' people being replaced by 'good' ones. Remember that politics is about ideas, programmes, policies, and truth - my how they abandoned truth. It is not about empty symbolism. It is about managing conflicting interests. It is about the real lives of all the people of the country. If you are from the left, it is about effective and practical politics to advance the welfare of the people. And it is a collective effort. I cringed at all these 'I support Jeremy Corbyn' and 'Vote Corbyn' memes. You should support Labour and vote Labour, not support and vote for an amorphous cypher on to which you can project your hopes. The outpouring of sanctimonious self-indulgence was a collective collapse of intelligence. The signs were there from the beginning if people wanted to look.

We now face a ruinous government. That's the Corbynite legacy. This deeply reactionary English nationalist party could have been resisted and defeated. It's time to ask yourself why it wasn't. Here's a clue. It wasn't because of the media, billionaires, Jews, lizards, or chemtrails, etc. It was because a section of the left lost its mind.

Monday, December 09, 2019

Approaching the losing post

It's the final week of the most dismal election campaign I can remember. Johnson has an approval rating of minus 20. A desperate losing position, except that Corbyn has an approval rating of minus 40 (an improvement on his minus 60 when the campaign started). That is the choice. In normal circumstances, neither would be electable. On top of that, Labour is led by a Brexiter pretending to be a remainer, the Tories by a cynical remainer pretending to be a Brexit ultra. The reality is that Johnson is solely committed to himself, while Corbyn's ultimate aim is maintaining sectarian control of the Labour Party.

The campaign has been remarkably inept and dishonest. Labour were unprepared. The Conservatives' behaviour has been extraordinary in avoiding any scrutiny and hiding Johnson away as he proved to be a hopeless campaigner and media performer. He crumbled into lies and bluster at any challenge that he was unable to dodge. The Jewish Labour Movement's leaked submission to the EHRC inquiry paints a picture, drawn from the testimony of Labour whistle-blowers, of deplorable institutional anti-Semitism. The Party's response has been to lie about the action they are taking, while their supporters duck the issue by screaming, "Look at the Tories, they're worse." My response is always, "Yes, they are. It goes with the territory of making the Conservatives a far-right populist party. They are supposed to be. It should be non-existent in Labour. In fact, Labour should be leading the fight against it. A bit of self-examination wouldn't go amiss."

The Conservatives are favourites purely because they have eliminated their chief rival for votes, the Brexit Party, by transforming the Tories into their equivalent, while purging the party of its remainers. This is ruthless politics. And it is effective. Remainers have squabbled and, despite many opportunities to ally against Johnson, have failed to do so. Given our perverse electoral system this could be decisive. It is now up to the voters to see if they can do through tactical voting what the politicians could not.

This election is the latest gift to the right-wing Brexit revolutionaries. No Parliament would have ever voted to leave the EU, and so they agitated for a referendum to by-pass it. Cameron was stupid enough to give them one. Having lost his majority and constrained by Parliament, Johnson was in a weak position. The threat to Brexit was a confirmatory referendum. This is because the polls were showing an 8-10 point lead for remain – around 55-45. A referendum would probably keep us in the EU and lose Johnson his power base. In a general election, given the electoral system, a 55% vote share for remain parties and a 45% share for leave parties could give leave a decisive parliamentary majority as long as the remain vote is split. The same remain majority would not be enough to prevent us leaving. So, what did the opposition do? Give them what they wanted.

Corbyn was decisive in supporting the election. Many of the Parliamentary Party and Shadow Cabinet were furious. Most wanted to try and win a referendum first, settle the Brexit issue and then move on to an election. However, Corbyn boasted to the Guardian,
“I put it to them quite clearly: I said, our objections are now gone. We are now supporting a general election – and everybody gulped. I didn’t alert anybody in advance – it was my decision. On my own. I made that decision. And they gulped, and said, Yes Jeremy.”
Yes, they gulped as Corbyn turned a position of strength into one of weakness. They didn't vote against it, let alone try and depose him. Cowardice. In the meantime, Corbyn tweeted that he supported an election as, "No Deal is now off the table," and by doing so promptly put no-deal back on the table again.

Whether Corbyn understood the difference between the withdrawal agreement and a deal is not known. Does Johnson? His slogan, "Get Brexit done," obviously played better with the focus groups than, "People against Parliament," but it is a lie and offers the possibility of a no-deal Brexit if he does not extend the transition period - which he has pledged not to do. The only comfort is that has done nothing that he has promised to do in the past.

And this is where we are. The most crucial election since the war, in which the future of the country hangs in the balance. An election dominated by the ambitions and vanities of two of the worst party leaders I can remember (though Ian Duncan-Smith pushed them close but was knifed before he could wreck the joint.) It's an election fought using different sets of lies, exaggerations, and vagaries. And it's all the result of a long series of institutional failures; putting the ultimate power of selection in the hands of unaccountable and unrepresentative political hobbyists; a supine and partisan press; persistent lying that treats the electorate with contempt; inadequate electoral laws subverted by the internet; and an arbitrary electoral system. But the biggest failure of all was calling a referendum that was unwanted by most, about an issue that few thought important, and was understood by virtually nobody other than experts.

It was odd to be reminded of Jordan Ellenberg's, How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life, by an article on VAR in football. However, it brought up a really good point.
But in the 2000 US presidential election, for instance, a few hundred votes in Florida made all the difference nationally and put George W Bush into the White House. The final margin represented 0.01% of the total votes cast, but as Ellenberg points out, “the imprecision caused by ballots spoiled, ballots lost, ballots miscounted is much greater than the tiny difference in the final count”. 
It would make more sense, Ellenberg argues, to decide the outcome on the flip of a coin. Some, he says, will recoil from the idea of choosing leaders by chance, and yet “close elections are already decided by chance”, be it “bad weather in the big city, a busted voting machine in an outlying town” or any one of dozens of potential random variables.
The closeness of the referendum result meant that it was down to just such a cluster of arbitrary variables that could easily have gone the other way. It was decided by around 600,000 people out of the 33 million who voted and the 13 million who didn't. If they had voted another way, the result would have been reversed. Yet this chance result is treated as holy writ, an incontestable decision enshrining the will of the people – "it's democracy." This is ridiculous. It has distorted our politics, but is the result of the misuse of referendums in a representative democracy. The only thing that seems to matter is the result, not the consequences. The consequences are momentous, out of all proportion to the way the decision was made. It is a huge constitutional failure.

We are beginning to see some debate about our democracy and the constitution, but not enough – yet. Even the most recent constitutional change, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, has been ineffective. Though it fixes the time between general elections at five years, we are now on our third in the last four years. The constitution is a mess, all the indicators are pointing the wrong way, and the political class seem no nearer to thinking constructively about the problems. Instead, all they seem to want to do is to game a malfunctioning system. It's not encouraging.