Friday, April 21, 2017

Wasting time

Why bother?

A big, expensive legal fight was won against the government and Parliament was given a vote on moving article 50 on exiting the EU. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed to stop the calling of a snap election on the basis of the government's short-term advantage. Parliament had to approve an early election by a two-thirds majority. Great, but only if the opposition doesn't decide to vote to do whatever the government wants. Parliament's power only exists if it is prepared to use it.

Now the right are consolidating their victory by holding an election to give them even greater control, presumably on the grounds that the Labour Party may not remain supine forever. 'So, Mrs May, what was it about a 21% lead in the polls that made you decide that an election was in the national interest?'

A Tory victory is a foregone conclusion. The size of the majority will depend on where the votes are cast and how effective tactical voting will be. But their lead is unassailable. The irony is that May is unimpressive at anything other than delivering platitudes. But once Miliband's ineffective leadership was replaced by Corbyn's destructive incompetence, we were doomed. It's as depressing as it was predictable (and predicted - this isn't hindsight talking).

This will be portrayed as a Brexit election. It isn't. Brexit will only become an issue when the consequences begin to unfold, but by then May will have a free hand. Although in another way, this is all about Brexit. Once again, I will have to get into the habit of agreeing with Tony Blair:
Some say it is to defeat the Tory Right so that she can go for a “softer Brexit”. This is naive. The opposite is true. At present, if she wanted to face down the Tory Right she has a Parliament with a majority to do so. What she doesn’t have is a Parliament that would vote for Brexit at any cost.
For the next couple of years Parliament will be marginalised, all the resources of government will be directed towards mitigating self-harm in the hope that the eventual deal will not be much worse than one we have already. What a criminal waste. And this is a crime which will leave many victims. One day someone will have to step in and clear up the mess, but who and when?

Sod it. From now on I am going to blog about cats.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Right turn

It's a wonderful Greek spring and I am enjoying the good fortune and privilege of being in my house in Pelion. The weather is gorgeous and the trees are in blossom. Cats are lolling about on the patio, stretching and yawning in the sun, occasionally to wake up and insistently demand food.

But there is a cloud on the horizon. At the moment I can come here as often as I like, when I like and as for as long as I like. For some reason, a number of my fellow Brits have decided that my right to do so should be taken away from me. My liberty and that of many others is down to my status as a citizen of the European Union and we are in the process of leaving as a result of a political miscalculation. So please don't tell me to move on, or sneer at me as a "remoaner." Depending on the final settlement, Brexit could hit me hard. I would love to see our departure stopped. It's personal.

Though this isn't just about me. I am upset by the referendum itself for constitutional and political reasons as well. Plebiscites are crude distortions of democracy. The mandate is weak, the majority was slim, and the outcome is highly uncertain, all of which should caution against change, rather than launch us recklessly into it. But above all, as I have been going on about for ages, Brexit is unambiguously a victory for the right.

However you look at it, this is not a win for the left, despite those who are optimistic about what they call a "lexit." Leftists who want to leave tend to make two main arguments. The first is that this was a working class revolt.

Owen Jones summarises and rebuts an argument that he once made:
Since the Brexit vote, the 48% who sought to remain have been demonised as a privileged elite attempting to subvert an authentic working-class revolt. “The working class have spoke!” crowed multimillionaire American citizen John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, recently. The referendum was a clash between the angry “millions of working-class people” and “prosperous middle-class homeowners in London”, declared the Sun. “Remoaners” are a clique formed of “citizens of the world” conspiring against the patriotic British working class, or so the story goes.
The only trouble with this is that, as Jones has spotted, it isn't true.
While Fareham is cast as part of an anti-establishment vanguard, Tower Hamlets – which has prevalent child poverty and two-thirds of whose residents voted for remain – is subsumed into the caricature of a pampered liberal elite. Most working-class Britons under 35 opted for remain, while most middle-class people over 65 voted for leave. Most working-class people who are white went for leave, most working-class people from ethnic minorities went for remain. Consider that the next time the Brexit press imposes its simplistic narrative on a complicated reality. Applying their logic, black supermarket workers and young apprentices form part of the privileged remoaner elite.
Reality is much more complex.

The second argument is based on economics. Forgetting the left's earlier attraction to the idea of 'social Europe' and the European Social Chapter of the Maastrict Treaty, they contend mainly that the EU is a vehicle for the imposition of right-wing economic orthodoxy, regardless of democratic demand, throughout the continent. This isn't without reason and there is nowhere better to see it than in Greece.

The crisis here rumbles on. There are small signs of recovery, but the social costs of austerity are ever-present. Greece's scope for action is limited by membership of the Euro and the flawed construction of the single currency. However, once again, real Greece is not the country of the left's imagination. Growing Greek indebtedness over decades would have resulted in a financial crisis whatever. Endemic corruption, clientelism, and the mess that is the Greek state, with its tangled bureaucracy, are obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in the country. Greeks despair of the system. If it was to avoid economic collapse, Greece would always have needed structural reforms together with the large additional loans, coupled with debt write offs, that it has received from the IMF and EU institutions.

The problem has always been the macro-economic conditions required by by the lenders. They have plunged the country into a deep recession, a spiral from which it struggles to emerge. Keynesians predicted as much. The institutions have been misguided. But would Greece have got a better deal from anyone else? No way. The problem is the global economic consensus. Of course the EU's economic assumptions are based on it. It's a consensus after all. This is what needs to be challenged.

So rather than disengage, wouldn't it be better to support the social democratic left's work to change the EU from within? Well, part of the "lexit" narrative is that the EU cannot, and never will, change. This is an odd contention to make about a dynamic institution that has transformed itself from a coal and steel community of six countries, to a loose union of twenty-eight democratic nations, some with a new common currency, in only sixty years. And again it isn't true. Here are a couple of examples of the type of left thinking taking place in the EU. Wolfgang Kowalsky thinks change is back on the agenda after a hiatus and that we are heading towards a more flexible approach to integration. Whilst Prime have produced a research paper with constructive proposals for a democratic economic policy. Instead of getting involved, leavers on the left have chosen disengagement, which suggests that their nationalism is stronger than their socialism.

No, the right have won. Labour is collapsing into irrelevance, twenty points behind in the polls and supporting Brexit, leaving the half of the country that wanted to remain in the EU without representation. A Conservative hegemony, deeply wedded to economic orthodoxy, stretches ahead of us. The right have succeeded in consolidating power and building their electoral strength. They have had three main successes.

First, they managed to get the referendum held despite the huge indifference of the British electorate. There was no demand for a referendum. Outside a small group of obsessives, nobody was bothered. All opinion polling had Europe as one of the lowest salience issues as this chart makes clear:

People who had never thought about the EU or took our membership as a given were forced to take a position.

Secondly, the right were successful in mobilising opinion because they linked a low salience issue with one with much higher salience, immigration. And in doing so they legitimised a popular xenophobia. Just as the left has had a tin ear for the anti-Semitism in its midst, so the left leavers are resistant to the evidence that popular racism had much to do with the win. They cannot hear what outsiders find loud and concerning. This is one reason why reading some of the polemics of the poet George Szirtes is so illuminating. As a former child refugee he has the ear of the incomer to hear the whispers of the ghosts of the past that the EU was created to lay to rest. This essay is fabulous.
I don’t think demonisation is too harsh a word, in that Leave rhetoric called forth certain demons, or rather that it quite consciously opened the trapdoors where such demons were hiding. It legitimised them. It called forth the firebombers. It called forth those who immediately set upon elderly widows of French and German birth who had lived in the country for decades and taunted them by asking when they were going home. It called forth the teenagers on the Manchester tram who demanded a black American get off it. It called forth the murderer of Jo Cox. 
As is his reflection at the end of a piece on Hungary from February:
Whatever some politicians say, we are citizens of the world whether we admit it or not. We consume and live by that which was once strange and once we close doors and windows we begin to suffocate. The terms in which the EU referendum was conducted extended far beyond normal debate about the movement of peoples, whether refugees or poor workers seeking a better life. They sought and exploited a latent hostility towards the foreign, a hostility that has increased since the decision. What this can lead to is more than a lack of air. It is a kind of aridity that becomes combustible. A few sparks can do it. The conditions for combustibility are already in place in the UK and in other parts of Europe, particularly in the region where I was born, and – especially now – in Trump’s US. Isolationism and patriotism are on the rise, partly as political acts, partly as social mood, exacerbated by whatever means, for political reasons. 
Drop enough sparks on dry ground and a fire starts. We have seen such fires before. The view beyond the cell, as Vas put it, is vital: better still to get out of the cell and out into the fertile world, and become its citizen.
I know that focus group research is plagued by the possibility of sample error, but this is alarming:
When asked what level they would expect to see for immigration after Brexit, the views of leave voters are clear: "zero"; "immigration should be stopped"; "no more East European immigrants"; "as low as it can possibly go". 
And what happens when these totally unrealistic expectations are not met? Will there be an embittered constituency waiting for something more extreme?

This brings me to my final point. Brexit was our alt-right moment. If you are in any doubts read this profile of Arron Banks.

OK, there are many sincere eurosceptic leavers on both the left and right who want nothing to do with this stuff. Also, UKIP and were not the official campaign, though they probably tipped the balance. But Brexit will be hugely disruptive, and disruption is what the alt-right seek to provide the opportunity to lead us into some dark places.

I don't think that they can do it on their own, as Jan-Werner Müller argues in this article right-wing populists need mainstream allies to win. This is what the official Brexit campaign provided in the referendum, but only for the limited purpose of leaving the EU. Their aim is more ambitious, to break up the EU completely. It stands in their way, and particularly in the way of the authoritarian anti-democratic movement. Wilders, Le Pen, Orban, Kaczynski all see themselves as the future and Brexit as a model to follow.

The power centre of this authoritarian and illiberal right is Putin. He has long had his band of faux-left figures, 'useful idiots' like Greenwald, Pilger, and Assange cheering him on, but could more effective alliances be forged in the mainstream? The pro-Trump sycophancy shown by Michael Gove is alarming, but I don't think it will go much further. What has happened though is that this utterly distasteful politics has shaped the agenda in ways I would not have thought possible before.

It's not a happy prospect for our country. Amongst some of the left, nationalist arguments over sovereignty and an economic critique of neoliberalism have combined with the dishonest reporting of the tabloid press to produce a fictional view of the EU as a static bureaucratic monolith, rather than an evolving supra-national organisation and alliance of democracies. We are not only leaving the EU, we are abdicating our responsibilities and abandoning our allies who are attempting to shape the Union and challenge economic orthodoxy. Instead we are retreating into a Tory hegemony, while left leavers dream of social democracy in one country. I rather think that a left turn is more likely within the EU than in Britain.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Theatre of the absurd

So it begins.

Today, we start to leave the EU by accident.

The referendum was called to disarm UKIP and the obsessive right of the Tory Party, and by doing so to secure our place in the EU for good. That went well didn't it?

It might have just about worked until the leavers played the race, sorry, immigration card.

Not that there is a consensus. The majority was small, subsequent polling all points to the country being split half and half, while up to 100,000 people marched through London to demonstrate against Brexit last weekend. Never can a change as fundamental as this have been implemented on such a weak mandate.

A Prime Minister who campaigned to remain has started the process, supported by an opposition who campaigned to remain, and with the backing of a vote in Parliament, the majority of whose members consider this to be an act of folly. The principles of representative democracy have been abandoned.

To be fair, if all goes well in negotiations, given enough expertise (which we don't have), given plenty of time (which we don't have), given adequate experienced staff (which we don't have), and given politicians who know what they are doing (which we don't have), we might just about get away with a deal that is only slightly worse than the one we already have as members. Otherwise, the risks are huge. This is a change that hasn't be thought through and for which we are entirely unprepared. There wasn't even any contingency planning.

I can't help thinking that this is a colossal, reckless error and, even worse, a betrayal of the future of the younger generation who voted overwhelmingly - in all classes and all regions - to remain. This is the generation who will have to bear the costs and lose the opportunities they had expected, which have been taken away from them against their will.

Another fine mess you got us into, Mr Cameron.

Monday, March 20, 2017


"If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring," as the old song goes. Well, it's the first day of spring today. The clouds are low, a cold wind is blowing, and the rain is slashing down. The singer wants every day to be like this? Really? Of course the symbolism of the first day of spring is that it marks the end of winter and the promise of summer to come. So, the song offers us a promise never to be fulfilled. Oh joy.

Come on Ryley, it's only a song. But it got me thinking. It comes from the musical Pickwick and is a political speech, a manifesto sung by Samuel Pickwick, an ingenue mistaken for a political candidate. Perhaps it's rather an apt metaphor.

The question it raises is, 'when is it right for people to impose their will on others?' Quite clearly, I want every day to be mid summer. I don't want to be condemned to live the rest of my life in vile weather like today. There isn't a simple answer. The current fashion seems to be that the majority, however small, of voters in a referendum have the right to impose their will on everybody else.

I moan about having my EU citizenship being taken away from me against my will, Scottish independence is being raised again, but one of the worst aspects of the EU referendum is that EU citizens, legally resident in the country for many years, didn't even have a vote. They are at risk of losing everything and weren't allowed a voice. Others took away their automatic right to live here and now they can only rely on others to try and protect them. As for Gibraltar, the forgotten question, around 90% of its citizens voted to stay in the EU. This is because their entire economy is dependent on an open border with Spain, guaranteed by membership. Yet, they are to be wrenched out of the EU by the votes of people in England. I could go on and on.

This isn't just a question about Brexit, though I think it is a terrible mistake, it is about the nature of government and democracy. It is why I would always defend representative democracy against a plebiscitary alternative. I am not an individualist absolutist. There are clear cases when people's ideas and desires should be overruled for the collective good, but the mechanisms for doing so matter.

I don't have good answers for a blog post. While the case against vesting all power in a dictatorial ruler or an oligarchy is manifest, crude majority rule also has dangers and is a flawed model of democracy. In the meantime, roll on summer.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The state of the nation

"Now is not the time" for a referendum on Scottish independence. So says the queen of the platitude.

So what's this all about? After all, it's only a short time since the last referendum. Actually, it's pretty simple. I've worked it all out.

We have two politicians going head-to-head who owe their position to being on the losing side in a referendum. One supported the losing side, but when the leader of the losers resigned because he lost, she took over on the basis of implementing the winning decision despite campaigning against it. The other lost, but, because of the popularity gained through losing, trounced the winning side in the subsequent election where the losers emerged victorious over the winners.

Now, there is very little enthusiasm for another referendum, it's unwanted by most. But we have to remember that the reason for the call to hold an unwanted referendum is the unwanted result of another referendum that wasn't really wanted either.

This is all about taking back control. For the English loser who won, taking back control used to mean taking back control from the European Union. Now it also means taking back control from the Scottish institutions that were set up in order to allow Scotland to take back control from the UK. They can't have that control, because they must take back control from the EU along with the rest of the UK, even though they voted not to. So the winning Scottish loser now wants to take back control from the UK government so that she doesn't have to take back control from the EU and reckons she can do it by holding an unwanted referendum. The English winning loser thinks we are stronger together in the union of the United Kingdom, making it easier to take back control from the European Union, where we are not stronger together even though she campaigned on a slogan saying that we were. The Scottish loser who won thinks that we are stronger together in the European Union, but not in the union of the UK, because she will be forced to take back control from the EU, which she doesn't want to do.

It's clear. This is consensus politics. Both agree that they want to stay in a union, just not the same one.

It's the will of the people.

(Er ... can't we just go back to being a representative democracy instead? Please.)

Be happy, it's an order!

Playing away

Forget the cloth cap image, Rugby League has always been innovative and has led the way only for others to follow and claim credit. Its holy grail has always been expanding the game. Often this has resulted in failure, but these days the sport is focusing on more organic growth, with new teams starting in the lower leagues and progressing on merit. Geography has never been an obstacle. This year Toronto Wolfpack (yes that is the Toronto in Canada) are playing in Championship 1 alongside teams like Barrow and Hunslet, as well as other clubs trying to build the game North and South.

Last year, it was the turn of the South of France when Toulouse Olympique XIII joined and won promotion at the first attempt, joining Swinton in the Championship. They played each other at the weekend. What an opportunity. I and a couple of hundred others grasped it, struggled with an air traffic control strike and made it over to Toulouse. Having got, nothing was going to stop a memorable weekend.

The stadium is in Blagnac, a very bourgeois suburb. It's so quiet on a Saturday evening that you felt you had to whisper as you walked through streets whose life had been choked out of them by stern respectability. Then, in late afternoon on a hot spring day, Swinton fans arrived from the city centre. Few had stopped drinking from the moment they arrived in France, most had sung continuously. The barbarians had arrived. Amiable, humorous, warm spirited, and boisterous barbarians. It was brilliant.

Then on to the match where the noise was non-stop, Swinton supporters amongst the 2,300 crowd trying, and often succeeding, in making more noise than the French brass band in the stand. It was a superb game, where a fine Toulouse side were taken very close, only winning 36-28 on successful goal kicks after both sides had scored seven tries apiece.

You can watch the whole game here:

The crowd dispersed for more drinking, dining on cassoulet, and sightseeing on the following days. It was a celebration of our international Rugby League family, of the delights of Europe, and of the general friendship that sport can engender. For me, they were four unforgettable days in two beautiful cities - we took an extra day in Carcassonne. There was sumptuous cuisine, historical sites, great art, and sporting comradeship all rolled together.

And as fans bumped into each other as they wandered round the town, they all said they same thing. Will we be going to Toronto?

Friday, March 03, 2017

Devilish details

I was never a Blairite. It wasn't just his political economy, I also disliked what I saw as the vacuity of much of his discourse, the strange, verbless syntax, the corny soundbites, and his peculiar halting delivery. Then he gave his speech on the EU. It used the same formulas, but it was startling because it was excellent. It made me think how much our political discourse has deteriorated since his heyday. Instead of the dry platitudes of May, the false bluster of Johnson, and the delusional rambling of Trump, Blair did something unusual in a political speech. It may have been partisan, but it presented clear facts and asked questions that needed answering.

The response was predictable. Rather than deal with the issues of substance, his speech was deluged in ad hominems. The left went on about Iraq. The right sneered. The worst was Boris Johnson who dealt with the arguments by telling people not to listen to them. But what about the questions Blair raised? Did anyone try and answer them? If they did, I didn't see any replies. This is the problem. The trouble with Brexit is that it's scary. Look at the data and it is clear, Brexit will be expensive to implement and the gains are hard to see. So let's avoid all that unpleasantness and castigate the "remoaners" for their negativity.

This reluctance to look at the facts is on all sides. Take this from here. It's from an article by a natural Blairite and a remain voter. He quotes a bizarre statement from Wes Streeting that voting not to trigger article 50 would have led to riots in the street, and then he throws in this:
Here’s a rallying cry from Jonathan Rutherford that I want to share;"Instead of hedging its bets, lamenting Brexit, and echoing each dire forecast of impending disaster Labour must stand foursquare for the labour interest in the restoration of a self-governing, trading nation."
 There are obvious objections. I thought we already were a "self-governing, trading nation." And what if the dire forecasts are right? Standing foursquare behind a mistake isn't a very good idea. But mainly, the quote is meaningless. Again look at the data. Blair did.
We will withdraw from the Single Market which is around half of our trade in goods and services. We will also leave the Customs Union, covering trade with countries like Turkey. Then we need to replace over 50 Preferential Trade Agreements we have via our membership of the EU; for instance with Switzerland. So, EU-related trade is actually two thirds of the UK total. This impacts everything from airline travel, to financial services to manufacturing industry, sector by sector.
So, how do we deal with this problem, who do we trade with? How do we overcome the loss of our membership of our main market? How do we do it with a productivity gap and trade deficit? And how can it serve the labour interest? These are real problems. Surely they should be discussed before leaping into the dark? There's nothing about any of this in the "rallying cry."

Ah, but then there's the 'will of the people.' That always gets pulled out. It's OK, don't worry about the details, because 'the people have decided.' 'They have spoken.' 'Their verdict is in.' Never mind a discussion of the quality of that decision or how well informed it was, let's look at the figures. 17 million voted out, 16 million voted remain, 13 million didn't vote at all, and millions more were not on the register. This wasn't even a majority. It was the largest minority. Now it is often sensible, customary, and democratic to vest power in the largest minority (though there are exceptions - Germany in 1933 springs to mind), but to describe this as somehow being the immutable will of the British people as a whole is absurd. I could accept the result as the starting point of a long deliberative and consultative process, but not as a blank cheque to the government to do whatever it likes. What politicians are really doing is hiding behind the vote to avoid talking about the substance.

Then there's the Labour Party's dilemma.They nominally supported remain, yet two thirds of their constituencies voted leave. What do they do? Their instinct is to protect what they hold. They must fall in line with their voters. All very commendable - except, as the vastly experienced psephologist, John Curtice pointed out, around two thirds of Labour voters voted remain, even in those constituencies that voted out. The referendum result was carried mainly by voters of other parties. It was based on the support of affluent, middle class areas. This gives Labour a profound problem, but not the one they think they have

In one sense Labour's timid position, to abandon policy and principle, and whip its representatives into line to support a hard Brexit, is thoroughly Blairite. Accommodate to a Conservative settlement and privilege one section of your support over another on the grounds that they 'have nowhere else to go,' is exactly what New Labour did. The weakness is that in order to win now Labour needs both. This points to a different strategy. I fear that if Brexit goes badly, the party has put itself in a position where it will have no credibility to criticise and propose an alternative direction. If it goes well, something I find unlikely, Labour will get no credit. Safety may well prove to be a lose/lose strategy.

When will we realise? This is a victory for the right. A big victory. Look at the voting figures. The last general election was one of the few times in post-war history when the parties of the right gained more than 50% of the vote. Brexit was predominantly the cause of right-wing obsessives and the Conservative press. This is our reactionary moment. But look again. It's a rebellion of the old. The young don't share it. It will pass.

So where should Labour stand? Should they embrace the present or gamble on the future? Who then should Labour stand with? The future or the soon to be past? That's their dilemma.

What all this shows is that if we rely only on slogans, conventional wisdom, clever journalistic phrases, or ideological biases, we can get things badly wrong. They make complexity seem simple, and the difficult easy. We have to look at the data. This is the hard, material reality that will decide what will actually happen. At the moment there is little comfort to be had from it for either side, which is presumably why all are lapsing into public expressions of wishful thinking.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Against conventional wisdom

This is a fine start to an excellent piece by Jan-Werner Müller:
Asked recently what liberals could learn from the annus horribilis 2016, the historian Timothy Garton Ash responded that they should beware of groupthink and conventional wisdom.
Absolutely. Müller does precisely that, writing against a modern domino theory of right-wing populism. He doesn't minimise the growth of right-wing populism, he simply states the obvious point that it cannot win on its own.
At last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the conventional wisdom was that a Brexit vote and a Donald Trump presidency could not possibly happen. This year, it was taken as given that an unstoppable populist wave is rolling across the west, a wave that will wash away political elites in upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany. Yet this image completely fails to capture a simple but crucial fact: nowhere have populists won majorities without the collaboration of established conservative politicians.
Trump won because he was the official Republican Party candidate. Brexit would not have happened if the campaign had centred around Farage alone. He needed the legitimacy of mainstream Conservative politicians, Johnson and Gove, supported by decades of anti-EU agitation by the Tory tabloid press. The wild hyperbole about Trump being a fascist is completely off target. After all, there is a long tradition of anti-rational, authoritarian right wing thought to draw on, other than fascism. But there is one point where the comparison with Hitler holds. Hitler could not have come to power on his own. The Nazis did not and could not win a majority. In what was arguably the worst mistake in history, Hitler was placed in power by mainstream politicians who underestimated him and thought they could use him for their own ends.

The big question is whether conservatives will repeat their errors. The way the Republican Party has begun to accommodate itself to the new presidency does not give hope. Neither did the sight of Jacob Rees-Mogg, dressed as always as if he was in the 1940s, repeating Trump's lies on Channel 4 news give me any reason to doubt that our current dismal crop of politicians are perfectly capable of making the same mistake and persuading themselves that the grotesque are respectable.

And while all this is going on there has been an astonishing neglect of the events in Romania. The mass protests there are pro-EU, contemptuous of conspiracy theories, and thoroughly democratic. They are the antithesis of right wing populism. They tell another part of the European story. As does this intriguing article by Catherine Fieschi. In concluding that Le Pen is unlikely to win the French presidency, she spots something else:
 My work with focus groups across France suggests something is shifting, some of it manifesting as support for the FN but also in the green shoots of a new more positive outlook, a new decentralised, local entrepreneurialism. In no way should we underestimate the FN’s capacity to mobilise – it is a threat. But as things stand, renewal may emerge in other, more hopeful ways.
Europe is not lost. Despite Hungary, despite Poland, a union of European democracies can thrive.

A second piece of conventional wisdom is that this populism means that we have to have a conversation about immigration. Chris Dillow thinks otherwise.
In fact, there’s a positive reason not to want a debate about immigration. Ms Cooper is an economist and so should know that everything carries an opportunity cost. And the opportunity cost of debating immigration is high. Our time and cognitive bandwidth is limited, so time spent debating migration is time spent being silent about other questions. 
From this perspective, debating immigration serves a reactionary function, as it silences debate about another question: is capitalism today best serving people’s interests? Debating immigration encourages the idea that immigrants are to blame for stagnant real wages and poor public services, and deflects attention from the possibility that the causes of these lie instead in secular stagnation. 
What Labour should be doing therefore is demanding – and instigating – a debate about how best to increase growth, wages and living standards. We should be asking not what to do about immigration but what to do about capitalist stagnation?
It's ironic, it became commonplace to blame jihadi terrorism on western foreign policy as if the terrorists faced no choice or agency in their decision to commit murder. Now, the same habit of thought is being applied to working class racism. People are being stripped of their agency. Racism thrives in conditions of alienation, but is just as prevalent amongst the wealthy suburbs. It's daft to see its causes as purely economic, though it is convenient to confine our recognition of it to a single class. That doesn't mean that economics can't ameliorate racism's appeal, but it shouldn't mean that we must pander to it.

This is a genuine problem for the left. It has lost its ability to speak for and to working class people. This long and thoughtful article from Julian Coman is well worth reading. It's full of ironies. The complaints that underpinned a strong working class leave vote had nothing to do with the EU. In Rochdale, for example, explicit racism was aimed at an earlier generation of migrants from South Asia rather than Eastern Europeans, while their laments about the decline of their town centre apply equally to high streets, in rich and poor areas alike, across the country. Structural change, some of it unavoidable, has been poorly managed by successive governments. Communities have been neglected. Regions have been allowed to decline. Ordinary people have borne the cost. They voted to leave the EU despite European funding being one of the few sources of investment in their areas.

Coman quotes Marc Stears:
“New Labour explicitly did a deal with the devil – it said, ‘Look, we’ll leave neoliberal policies alone because we’ll be able to cream off enough money to redistribute adequately.’ So you could generate support for the public services by being very hands-off with market forces, but then redistributing through the state.” The achievements of New Labour in re-investing in the NHS and renovating crumbling schools were the fruit of this bargain. But, says Stears, there was a darker side to the project. 
“The big problem with the model was that the Labour hierarchy grew to have disdain in high places for the people who were not happy with that settlement. People who were miserable at work because they were being treated badly by some corporate power; or people working in a public sector that was increasingly marketised and target-driven; or people whose communities were changing and felt aggrieved at the emergence of clone towns and high streets that lost all their identity.” 
The crash brought an uneasy compromise to an end. “If economic times are good and you are getting a fancy new GP surgery, you may feel you can put up with the lack of control at work, or the nature of the high street and so on. But when that improvement in the public realm comes to a shuddering halt, as it did in 2008, then this deal is no deal at all. And you get the populist revolt that we’ve seen.” 
For Ukip, Donald Trump and other rightwing populist forces on the rise, the aftermath to the crash offered a golden opportunity to fuse xenophobic nationalism with provincial and regional discontents that have been simmering for years. But the response, says Stears, cannot be to wave the anger away as part of an “age of unreason”. Seeing off the likes of Farage depends on finding a vision of work, place and community that can speak to the wider concerns of those Nissan workers in Sunderland, not a return to the status quo ante.
I think he's right, but it is not enough to speak to wider concerns, it is equally important to talk with the concerned - and to listen to them and negotiate with them. Wigan's MP, Lisa Nandy, was interviewed for the  piece and was despairing at the way policies have been imposed in the past without discussion with those most affected. It's very worthwhile listening to her recent talk on the future of the left below, not least because she doesn't wish away the difficulties.

The result is that I agree with Chris Dillow's sentiment, but not wholly with his conclusion. We do need a conversation, but not one about how to appease atavistic sentiment. It's a conversation that should not be held in isolation. It's about how we build better communities, manage them, and democratise - really let people take back control. And, at the same time, to vigorously oppose racism in all its guises. It comes down to looking at things in a different way. If we do, we can see the instinct Fieschi saw in her French focus groups. This is a conversation that gives Labour a future.

Finally, we have just witnessed one of the most dismal failures of parliamentary democracy. It took a private individual to go to court to ensure that Parliament, not government, had control over the decision to initiate the process of leaving the European Union. It was a futile effort as Parliament capitulated and duly handed all the power back to the government to impose their interpretation of the result. It marked the nadir of Corbyn's inept leadership of the opposition, as Labour, a few honourable rebels aside, duly voted with the government to give it an overwhelming majority. The capitulation of the pro-European Tories was just as shocking, with only Kenneth Clarke voting against the government. We had the extraordinary spectacle of the majority of MPs of both main parties, who had voted and campaigned to remain, and who viewed leaving the EU as potentially catastrophic, voting to trigger Article 50. We saw both parties whip their members into voting against their decades-old official policies on Europe. Why? Well, it was because of the "will of the people," another piece of conventional wisdom.

I would not be impressed with an A level student who argued that there was a homogenous popular will. I would be even less impressed if the student said that a narrow majority of those that voted, a minority of the electorate as a whole, constituted a consensus binding parliament and government in perpetuity. A C Grayling, in his typically overwrought style, makes a good point. The outcome of the referendum was solely the result of the rules applied. If the rules as to who could vote were the same as those for the referendum on Scottish independence, then it is highly probable that remain would have won. What I would add that even without a wider franchise, if it had been held under the same rules as the referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution in 1979, leave would have lost as they failed to reach the threshold of winning the support of 40% of the electorate.  This survey suggests that a referendum held today would produce the opposite result. Perhaps, but given the margins of error of all surveys, we cannot be sure. The one thing that it does show is that the nation is still sharply divided, there is no consensus, let alone a single will of a people who split 50/50 on the issue.

MPs have failed in their primary duty, to act as representatives of their constituents and of the national interest as they see it, not once but twice. They not only voted against their consciences on Article 50, they also abandoned their democratic duties by voting to hold the referendum in the first place, giving over a complex and vital question to the uncertainties of a plebiscite. It was a critical failure.

These three issues point to choices about the democracies we want. To choose to delegitimise the populist, authoritarian right; to devolve and democratise politics at the local level; and to strengthen representative democracy. Taken together they are the foundations of a programme for a revived democratic left. It is one that I would want to see flourish in Britain and within a European Union of which the United Kingdom remained a proud member.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Children, children

Two of the least impressive political speeches ever.

Theresa May: "Give us what we ask for, or I'll thcream and thcream 'till I'm thick."

Donald Trump: "It's mine. You can't have it."

Oh, grow up.

It would be comic if it were not for the consequences of two major nations indulging in wanton self-harm, with god knows what collateral damage in their wake.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brrr ...

Europe is freezing. Certainly this corner of Greece was, though the weather is now mild, the sun is out, and the sea of white is giving way to green.

Very picturesque, very Christmasy, but it's supposed to be Greece, and in a house heated by wood stoves, central heating seemed more sensible by the minute. I've never been a fan of cold.

And are we entering a very cold political climate? Brexit and the collapse of the Labour party opening up the prospect of endless Tory government? The rise of populist nationalism? The authoritarianism in Poland, Hungary and Turkey? The bizarre and sickening Putin worship on both the left and the right? And the coup de grace, the most disturbing and dysfunctional president ever to enter the White House? It's a grim catalogue.

Despite all this, I am not a pessimist. This rise is very resistible. It is easy to make a comparison with the 1930s, but democratic societies are more secure and, above all, more prosperous. We have more to lose and have a collective memory of the disasters of the past. Yet it has to be resisted. The far right has not stood still. It has reinvented itself as something respectable, distancing itself from the death camps of the past. This makes the need to oppose it even more urgent. And this is what disturbs me about Corbyn's apparent and confused capitulation to a UKIP-lite agenda and acceptance of a hard Brexit. It seems a curious position to take for a leader of a party that supported remaining in the EU and 70% of whose voters voted to remain. It mirrors the actions of the Conservative Party, and shows that the major parties' approach to UKIP is one of appeasement, not opposition. A hard Brexit on UKIP terms would never have won a majority.

16 million voters are unrepresented by the two major parties. Even if you accept the legitimacy of the result, that does not mean that you have to think and say that it was the right decision. An opposition's role is to organise and, at the very least, fight to protect people's rights and livelihoods as part of a process they oppose. Eurosceptics accepted the decisive result of the 1975 referendum, but they still kept fighting their corner, so much so that leaving the EEC was official Labour policy in the disastrous election of 1983. Why should we now meekly abandon our beliefs and acquiesce in error?

It's a bad mindset for a time of challenge.

To sum up the situation we are in, here are three articles from very different writers, each worth reading in full and each coming to a similar conclusion from a different perspective. First, a review article from the New York Review of Books by Timothy Garton Ash. His conclusion:
...this is no time for freezing. No, we who believe in liberty and liberalism must fight back against the advancing armies of Trumpismo. The starting point for fighting well is to understand exactly what consequences of which aspects of the post-wall era’s economic and social liberalism—and of related developments, such as rapid technological change—have alienated so many people that they now vote for populists, who in turn threaten the foundations of political liberalism at home and abroad. Having made an accurate diagnosis, the liberal left and liberal right need to come up with policies, and accessible, emotionally appealing language around those policies, to win these disaffected voters back. On the outcome of this struggle will depend the character and future name of our currently nameless era.
Secondly, this is a beautifully written piece on Trump from Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. I thought of Brexit when I read this:
This is what was once called Bonapartism: I won and I can now do anything I choose. Victory, however narrow, is license for all. Autocracy, after all, has always been compatible with plebiscitary endorsement. The point of constitutional government is to make even the victors subject to the rules.
His conclusion is similar to Timothy Garton Ash.
There’s no point in studying history if we do not take some lesson from it. The best way to be sure that 2017 is not 1934 is to act as though it were. We must learn and relearn that age’s necessary lessons: that meek submission is the most short-sighted of policies; that waiting for the other, more vulnerable group to protest first will only increase the isolation of us all. We must refuse to think that if we play nice and don’t make trouble, our group won’t be harmed. Calm but consistent opposition shared by a broad front of committed and constitutionally-minded protesters—it’s easy to say, fiendishly hard to do, and necessary to accomplish if we are to save the beautiful music of American democracy.
And finally, from the left, Michael Walzer writes in Dissent that, "One of the historical tasks of the left in the present period is to help hold the center." He concludes:
In fact, of course, the survival of a vital center is also the precondition of an active left. Never think that “the blood-dimmed tide” is a threat only to immigrants and minorities. It is a threat to all of us: dissidents of every sort, union organizers, left intellectuals, feminists, peaceniks, men and women of conscience, students discovering Marx, teachers who don’t like standardized tests, and journalists who write about the misdeeds of the rich and powerful. We all need constitutional protection; we all need a center that holds. We have to stand in the center and on the left at the same time. That may be complicated, but it is our historical task.
They are right. This isn't the time for timidity.