Monday, September 28, 2015

The moment

What a day

It is impossible to write about dramatic sporting events without sounding like an over-enthusiastic fifteen-year-old. Yesterday was the most dramatic of all with Swinton playing a promotion semi final against York. York were leading 17-16 with twelve seconds on the clock before Swinton put over the equalising drop goal to take it to golden point extra time. They played the extra period perfectly, kept York away from their sticks, forced an error and dropped the vital goal to win 18-17. On to the final at Widnes next weekend.

Instead of writing about the game how about this conversation taking place behind me on the terraces? They were talking about Rugby Union.

I heard this voice say,  "I turned over on the TV and that England Wales game was on. Watched a bit of it. What is that all about. Kick, kick, bloody kick. Every time they get it."

His mate replied, "I would rather watch the X Factor than that stuff. And I don't watch the X Factor."

Someone at the front, a York fan turned round, "I haven't watched a second of that World Cup shite so far, and I won't watch any more either."

Ah, the League fans' disdain for Union. It is an ancient tradition.

But these days it is a little more open minded. The original speaker said, "mind you, me mate watches it the whole time, he used to play, he coaches it and his son plays too. He loves it. There must be something in it. God knows what it is though."

Monday, September 21, 2015

Two thoughts on the Greek election

My first thought is that I have always argued that the Greek referendum and now the election were internal power plays, ways in which Tsipras was trying to consolidate his power within his party and in government. This good instant reflection from Cas Mudde agrees:
The only reason that PM Alexis Tsipras called for the September elections was to weed out the (real) radicals from his increasingly misnamed Coalition for the Radical Left (Syriza). Faced with a parliamentary faction of at least one-third 'dissidents,' i.e. MPs opposed to the third bailout and the more moderate course of Tsipras, he by and large called a Greek election to solve a Syriza problem.
The second is a propensity for the media to exaggerate. They love a disaster story and the, often described as "inexorable," rise of Golden Dawn is a goody. Read some journalists and you would think that there are storm troopers on every corner and that the facile comparisons with the Weimar Republic were true. This narrative frustrates people in Greece, especially those that work in some branch of tourism who worry that potential visitors are put off. Mudde nails this exaggeration too:
While it remains disturbing that a political party that has an anti-democratic ideology and has been involved in endemic violence is the third largest party in the country, all the opportunistic and sensationalist warnings of a huge rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn have predictably proven wrong. Its modest increase is mostly an effect of the combination of a remarkably loyal support base and a lower turnout (see below). It is clear that roughly 5 percent of the Greek population supports Golden Dawn, accepting that it is a violent neo-Nazi party, and will almost always come out to vote. But this makes Golden Dawn less like the French Front National, a party that has systematically broadened and increased its support base, and more like the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), catering to a devoted but relatively stable subcultural base. 
After three years of the Weimar economic crisis, the Nazis were on 37%, after five years of the Greek one, Golden Dawn are on just under 7%. Greece's problems are far from over, it can be a little strange, but it's a nice place.


This is the headline of the decade from the Independent
Downing Street stays silent over claims David Cameron put genitals in a dead pig's mouth while at Oxford University
 Puerile, but so funny. Will Piggate haunt him?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Attention spans

There is an election today. Had you noticed it? You might not have done. It's an election in a country still gripped by one of the worst financial crises of post-war Europe. Remember now? The country that earlier this year had people salivating over a word that they had been scarcely aware of before, oxi. Oh yes, that country. The one that had left-leaning commentators gushing clichés about cradles of democracy and the like. The one that had neo-Keynesian economists like Krugman and Sachs allying with eurosceptic conservatives such as the Telegraph's Evans-Pritchard, urging actions on macro economic policy whilst dismissing the micro economic conditions that would have undermined them. There was nothing wrong with their critique of austerity, or of its impact on Greece, it is just that they didn't align their prescriptions with the real country. The pro-Euro writer, Yannis Palaiologos, author of some superb reportage in The13th Labour of Hercules: Inside the Greek Crisis, is scornful:
I am referring in particular here to high profile U.S. economists, like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs, who have led the global anti-austerity campaign and have made my country a cause célèbre in that struggle. They have been right to argue that too much austerity has been imposed on Greece, and that further debt relief is required. But in recent months, as relations between Athens and its creditors have deteriorated, they have served Greece’s cause very poorly indeed... exit from the euro, which Greeks never voted for anyway, either in January or in July, would have been an unmitigated catastrophe, dwarfing the costs even of the bad deal struck on July 13.
And now that Greece did that deal, they and their followers have lost interest. Greeks only mattered to them as the objects of their theories. They would always walk away.

It is the same for many on the left. Think back to the enthusiasm bubbling up from that inspiring insurgent movement, surging from the grass roots to power, with its tie-less leaders and a cool motorbike riding finance minister. The one that failed. It's been abandoned too.

After some badly-chosen anti-German jibes about tanks and collaborators, and a few days of tweeting about coups when Germany had pushed through a new €83 billion funding package for the country, albeit with horribly stringent conditions, the left found a new object of desire. Not only is he often tie-less, but he wears a vest. OK he has hung out with a few fascists and anti-Semites from time to time, but, hey, he was only trying to make peace. And he crowd sources questions. The Tory press are smearing him because they are really scared (not thinking that they can't believe their luck). This is the new politics now. It will change everything. OK, I know he isn't actually elected to government, but he won! Who says he is unelectable when two hundred and fifty thousand activists have just voted for him? (Er, the electorate is forty-five million).

This band of hope, these evangelicals following the latest Messiah, would do well to have a glance back at their previous saviour. Securely in the lead in the polls, Tsipras called an election. But now the polls are level. He may lose to the conservative Nea Dimokratia. Popular Unity, the former Left Platform that split from Syriza, faces a wipeout. Everyone I talked to said the same. There is no enthusiasm, people don't know who to vote for, turnout will be low as disillusionment is high. And if the left doesn't at least try to understand the reasons for this failure, learn from it, and adjust its aims and strategy accordingly, then they will fall to defeat after defeat. The movement will die, leaving children growing up in poverty, families depending on food banks, with no one to speak for them and to defend them. Fantasy politics is self-indulgence, nothing more.

And as for the Greeks, struggling under austerity policies that make Tory Britain look positively munificent, don't they deserve a bit more solidarity than their brief moment in the international limelight as the object of the wet dreams of middle class lefties, before they move on to their next austerity porn star? Or are they just yesterday's craze, mouldering in the bottom of the toy box?

Greece has deep structural problems, but it is also a resilient country. This is a lovely piece from Marcus Walker and Myrto Papadopoulos.
 ... many Greeks have given up waiting for their politicians to find a way out of the country’s long economic crisis. Instead, national recovery and renewal will come about through the sum of ordinary people’s efforts, more and more people say.
Athens-based photographer Myrto Papadopoulos travelled the country in the week before the elections and asked Greeks from widely different walks of life how their country could finally leave its crisis era behind it. What she discovered was a mixture of resignation about Greek politics and belief in the innate creativity and resourcefulness of ordinary Greeks.
The obstacles to change are formidable, and include chronically fractious and unstable politics. Building a more functional Greek economy and polity will take years—perhaps a decade or even a generation, many Greeks say. But they insist they will get there. 
 Let's not forget them as they rebuild.

Syriza won. This time as a pro-Euro, centre left party, defending Greece's interests within the terms of the memorandum, rather than pledged to ending austerity.


Syriza have reformed the coalition with ANEL, the right wing ultra-nationalist party, again raising the question of whether this is a leftist or a nationalist government. Popular Unity, the left wing of Syriza that split away over the deal with the EU, failed to enter the parliament having fallen below the 3% threshold. Turnout was a record low of around 56%. Voting is compulsory in Greece.

And a clarification, the failure I was referring to in the post above, was the failure in their stated aim of ending austerity. They ended up doing a deal that intensified it and now they have to implement it.

A good reflection on the result from Nick Malkoutzis here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


Here is a screen grab from a newsreel of Remembrance Day 1948 at the Cenotaph.

The band is playing God Save the King. Clement Attlee is singing loudly, next to him a scowling Winston Churchill remains silent. In 1948 the war was a recent memory, its commemoration deeply personal.

It was dumb politics by Corbyn not to sing the anthem at the Battle of Britain commemoration as it gave the press something to attack, but how puerile the whole debate has become. Remembering the awful cost of the necessary defeat of fascism should be personal, reflective and not a set ritual that leads to abuse if you deviate from the approved routine by wearing the wrong overcoat or failing to mumble the words to the national anthem. It is trivialising something profound.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015


Bugger politics. Cats, that's what the internet is really for.

This is what I saw when I opened the shutters this morning.

The mother is a feral cat that I've been feeding. I'm going back to the UK in a couple of days time so I feel really sad now.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

So what now?

Atul Hatwal was wrong. As was I. In my case this is not an unusual occurence. Wishful thinking and a failure to account for how much the membership had changed since 2005 gave credence to doubts about the accuracy of the polls. Mind you, it was becoming clearer that this was going to be the case as the election got nearer. Labour insiders knew that it was all over.

It wasn't even close. Corbyn won convincingly in the first round. The only section in which he didn't have an overall majority and thus would have brought second preferences into play was the members's section, but then his lead was so big there it would have been hard to overturn. His victory amongst the £3 registered voters and Trade Union affiliates was overwhelming. The party has also seen all women candidates defeated. That may be significant to its appeal.

I was never New Labour. I thought the contributions of the Blairites to the campaign were grisly and counter productive. My god we needed an alternative to their anodyne politics and economic orthodoxy. What I was hoping for was a new, intelligent left; egalitarian, modern, inclusive. One that would build a credible alternative model of political economy, enhance economic security, embrace principled internationalism and cherish individual liberty. Instead we have the Guardian comments pages. Yes, a new leadership in the spirit of Seumas Milne.

Well, it won't be boring. There is a lot that can happen before 2020, but I don't think that it will end well. I am sixty-three in a few days time. I'm worried that I may not see another Labour government in my lifetime.

Janan Ganesh is right:
The enemy of sound political judgment is the desire for distinctiveness. Commentators sometimes parse straightforward events for surprising nuances or daring new angles because it makes for good copy. But it is better to be right than original. No, a Corbynite Labour party will not cause trouble for the Tories. Mr Cameron will not find him a confounding adversary across the parliamentary dispatch box. Demonstrations will not shake the government. They will not even shake the streets they are held on. Politics will not be reinvented. Mr Corbyn is not “on to something” with his critique of capitalism and western foreign policy. This is a passing commotion whose principal victims are the millions of low-paid Britons who need a serious party of the centre-left.
And it is the last sentence that matters.

Friday, September 11, 2015

On the eve

This isn't a particularly original 'Corbyn-can't-win-a-general-election' piece in The Economist, though it's probably right enough. It was my historian's take on this section that interested me:
According to Geert Hofstede, a Dutch psychologist who has devised a means of quantifying such things, Britain is the most individualistic country in Europe; a place of “rampant consumerism” where “the route to happiness is through personal fulfilment” rather than collective endeavour. Polling by Ipsos MORI supports his claim, showing that each successive generation is more sceptical of organised religion, the welfare state and government in general. 
Why I was interested is that I have seen the same thing written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries about working class attitudes and political beliefs. More recent social historians have also picked up on this observation too. Is this a constant feature of British political culture? And, if so, how can an electoral party of the left respond?

This tendency is usually understood as an explanation as to why the British left was anomalous to the general European experience. Whilst mass socialist political parties were taking off in continental Europe, British socialism only produced relatively marginal organisations. The result was the formation of the Labour Party. It was a compromise from the beginning. Trade Unions provided the mass membership, socialist parties the political energy. The result was that Labour has never been a socialist party; instead it is a party that contains socialists.

If it is a given that we have always been a private, materialist, and individualist nation, what is the role of a left political party? When faced with this wall of indifference, political activists have polarised between being the Jehovah's Witnesses on the doorstep - evangelicals seeking to bring us back to the true path, convinced that we have been deliberately duped by a satanic media - and the cynics - who think that all they have to do is to gives us bread and circuses and please us by being nasty to foreigners and the poor. Both are minorities within minorities, and both miss the point.

British individualism is not amoral. It can recognise the collective benefits and self-interest of institutions like the NHS, whilst it can also embody a sense of justice and is prone to outbursts of collective morality – like the current one caused by a dead child on a Mediterranean beach, which Cameron so misread. And this is the space the democratic left can and should occupy. Balancing a defence of collective goods and a sense of justice with individual well being, not some specious 'centre ground.' This is what Eric Hobsbawm was writing about in his classic essay from the late 1970s, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, at a time of another Labour Party nervous breakdown.

The appeal of the evangelist is always limited, but is given strength by the cynics. People, on the whole, spot a phoney easily and resent being patronised. However, that doesn't mean that they are in the market for unmitigated authenticity. And in this long, eloquent piece, Taylor Parkes, a committed leftist explains his doubts over the faction Corbyn represents. I particularly liked this:
What's more, there are certain... issues with Corbyn and the company he keeps. He doesn't just have skeletons in his closet, he hangs up his shirts in an ossuary. This is not a trivial matter. Those who underestimate the problems this will cause are fooling themselves (and in some cases, losing sight of their own moral compass).  
Don't get me wrong. My desire for a Left or leftish alternative to permanent austerity is so strong that I could weigh all these things up and still decide that yes, a Corbyn government is something I could vote for – albeit with my mouth in the shape of a wavy line and a hand to my brow. But let's not fantasise. Most British voters will respond to Corbyn much as they'd respond to a man weighing five stone five, with blood trickling out of his left ear, asking for a loan. The very phrase “a Corbyn government” has a whiff of pixie dust about it, something chimerical. This doesn't worry the Corbyn faithful. 
The prospect opening up is of a new Tory hegemony arising out of an unconvincing electoral victory. They can't believe their luck. The Lib Dems were easy meat, the SNP destroyed Labour's power base in Scotland, and now Labour may be about to go mad. As Parkes puts it,
Yet again the Left is in a corner, driven there not just by slick manoeuvring from the Right, but by its own persistent stupidity.
We will have to see what emerges from this ill conceived, badly timed and incompetently run leadership election. Tomorrow's result will be significant, whichever way it goes.  

Monday, September 07, 2015

Seeking refuge

This is a nice, myth-busting piece on the refugee emergency from Channel 4's Lindsey Hilsum. Her conclusion puts events into perspective.
If we didn’t have empathy we’d have died out long ago. The story of humanity is a story of movement, migration, birth and adaptation. This is just a tiny chapter.
She's right. But let's not underestimate the severity of the problems, especially here in Greece, where the refugee and financial crises converge.

There is one thing that we should be emphasising though. This is not simply a Syrian refugee crisis, but a Syrian crisis. And though horribly late, there is one consistent demand from Syrians hoping to salvage some hope from the catastrophe - a no fly zone. It would be a limited intervention to stop the bombing, killing, starving and gassing of ordinary people. It is a proposal which has been resolutely opposed by the British anti-war movement. So much so that Syria Solidarity protested at the Stop the War Coalition's conference this summer.

As is often the case, the voices who would complicate the simple narratives are missing. So here are links to the non-violent opposition, supporters of the Syrian revolution. And what do these peaceniks call for?
Extremism breeds from injustice - the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today is the 'barrel bomb'. These are often old oil barrels filled with explosive and scrap metal and rolled out of government helicopters and planes miles up in the air onto hospitals, schools and homes. 
The UN Security Council unanimously banned them a year ago. Nothing has changed since then - nearly 2,000 children have been killed since UN Resolution 2139 was signed on February 22, 2014.

Many of us were against foreign military intervention in Syria. But in September 2014 the US-led coalition started bombing Isis in our country. Now there is a deep hypocrisy to letting the Assad regime fly in the same airspace and kill civilians. Many more than are killed by Isis.
The international community must follow through on its demands and stop the regime’s barrel bombs and air attacks - even if that means with a 'no fly zone'.
TO THE UN SECURITY COUNCIL: "Barrel bombs - sometimes filled with chlorine - are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today. Our unarmed and neutral rescue workers have saved more than 22,693 people from the attacks in Syria, but there are many we cannot reach. There are children trapped in rubble we cannot hear. For them, the UN Security Council must follow through on its demand made last year to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a 'no-fly zone' if necessary." - Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defence.
By all means applaud the ones who got out, welcome them, support them, but remember those millions trapped behind who have no hope of reaching the European paradise. They need help too. And even if we still end up with some dystopian settlement in a fragmented failed state, the only hope is to stop the bombs and give a chance for a recovery of Syrian civil society that still clings to life amongst the rubble. And please, listen to their voices.