Thursday, September 29, 2016

"You don't know what you're doing!"

What a man in search of a trade deal - any trade deal - will do. Here is Boris Johnson, our inexplicable Foreign Secretary, pledging to support Turkish entry into the European Union. This in the wake of the repression following the coup, with tens of thousands imprisoned on political charges. Elif Shafak describes what it is like,
Intimidation and paranoia permeate Turkish society. We are afraid to write. We are afraid to talk. Never before have we been so scared of words and their repercussions. If the government does not control this purge, it will not only cause injustices that will take decades to heal, but also weaken the credibility of legitimate efforts against putschists.
However, Mr Johnson has other reasons, he is apparently the “proud possessor of a beautiful, very well-functioning Turkish washing machine.” Cynthia Kroet comments,
Johnson’s relationship with Ankara has not always been so friendly. In May, prior to his appointment to the role of foreign secretary, Johnson won a poetry prize for a rude limerick about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan having sex with a goat.
But then hang on a minute. Is this the same Johnson who fought a campaign to leave the EU, partly based on the dangers of Turkish entry into the EU? The same campaign that denied that we had a veto over Turkish entry (fact check - we do)? It prompted this response in a Facebook post by Guy Verhofstadt, the flamboyant former Prime Minister of Belgium, leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament and frequent scourge of Nigel Farage.
So Boris Johnson wants to help Turkey join the EU, after he just campaigned for the UK to leave the EU on the basis that Turkey would be joining the EU in the near future. The UK defence Minister today says the UK Government will block EU efforts to enhance its security capabilities, even though the UK is leaving the EU, yet they say they want an enhanced security relationship with the EU after Brexit. Liam Fox, the UK trade minister, has indicated the UK will leave the EU's customs union, because he thinks other markets are more important, yet his Prime Minister tells us that the EU27 "will sign" an ambitious trade deal with the UK. Politics never fails to surprise me!
This act of self harm is going well, isn't it?

Friday, September 23, 2016


Of course he will win again.

Let's forget the politics for a moment. There are long debates that need to be had, not just about the future of the Labour Party, but of left politics itself. This post isn't about them. Instead, I want to draw on personal experience.

During my working career I have often encountered poor management. It hasn't always been the case; some of my managers have been superb. If you are really lucky, you end up with a star. Sometimes you get people with strengths and weaknesses, sometimes you work for the mediocre, but on rare occasions you get a new manager who is catastrophic. They are so bad that they threaten the very existence of the organisation. Then what do you do? It's an impossible choice.

You start by keeping your head down, getting on with the job, and making sure that everything runs well. It's a bit galling when managers claim credit for all your hard work, when you know that successes have been achieved despite, not because of, management. But then the drip, drip of mistake after mistake, of stupidity repeated, of reputational harm, of antagonism and unpleasantness, reaches breaking point. At that moment you can do one of two things. You can internalise the problem and make yourself ill, or you can take action and rebel. I have done both. And both failed.

There is not a lot you can do to rebel. You can use the union to snipe away at small issues, but the main tool is to hold a vote of no confidence. The expectation is that if the management has any sense of personal honour or obligation they would resign, or, if not, their superiors in the power hierarchy would take action. Think again. Every time we passed one, the management ignored it, admitted no fault, blamed others, issued vague threats to what they saw as a rebellious and disloyal staff, but magnanimously said that we could be forgiven for telling the truth as long as we stopped doing so and did what we were told. Does this sound familiar?

This is why I take the Labour leadership election personally. I've been there. I know what it is like for the PLP. For nearly a year those who had to work under Corbyn's leadership faced a number of mini-crises without snapping. But it was the Brexit failure and Corbyn's unilateral call to immediately activate Article 50, without consultation or any real understanding of the complexities of Brexit, which was the moment that people sat back and thought that something must be done. (Even more bizarrely he denied doing so in the leadership debates although anybody can see the clip on YouTube). The bulk of the Shadow Cabinet resigned, the Parliamentary Party passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence, even his impressive personally chosen team of economic advisors resigned. All said the same thing. The leader's office was a shambles, they had been personally undermined, the media strategy was a mess, there was no consultation or coordination, it was impossible to get to talk to Corbyn, he was unable to take criticism and unwilling to listen, he showed no leadership skills and was an improbable prime ministerial candidate. Basically, he and his team were useless. In addition, the polls were consistently bad and his personal polling was catastrophic. It was clear that Labour was heading for the sort of defeat that is hard to recover from.

The result? Nothing. He ignored it all and carried on regardless with a small band of unimpressive loyalists. If a government is defeated in a no confidence motion, it has to resign, but the leader of a Parliamentary party, apparently not. So the next stage was a leadership challenge.

Owen Smith hasn't impressed. His undermining of Angela Eagle dismayed me, his strategy was poor, his inexperience showed, but at least he was prepared to try in a way others weren't. This points to the other problem, the inadequacy of the alternatives that opened the way for the experiment of the Corbyn leadership. And Corbyn is unbeatable at the moment, given his support within the membership. This is the oddest part of it.

Whenever I was involved in trying to get rid of bad management, those higher up in the hierarchy rallied round to support them against the workers. This time it is a mass of people outside the power structure who want to preserve Corbyn.

I cannot for the life of me understand the enthusiasm, idolatry and uncritical hero worship of the 'Corbynistas'. I dislike and distrust the adulation of political leaders per se. It marks a suspension of healthy sentiments like scepticism, judgement and doubt. Sometimes it can be pathological, especially when it becomes Manichean where all opponents of the beloved leader are enemies, traitors and, ominously, "red Tory scum." I look at the upturned faces at his rallies, burning with admiration at every mumbled platitude, happy to bathe in his banality, and it strikes me that this whole phenomenon is so divorced from reality as to be bat-shit crazy. I haven't put in any links in the post so far, though I could have used millions. Instead, I will point to this one piece by a Greek leftist, Alex Andreou. It's excellent. This paragraph captures the essence of the problem:
... my impression from many hundreds of discussions, is that post-Iraq, all competence and charisma has become a confused proxy for ruthlessness and deceit. To manage is to engage in "managerialism". To win is a sign of immorality. And that, I think, is the true source of my impasse with many Corbyn supporters. I see his incompetence and intransigence as fatal flaws; they see them as guarantees of purity. 
As Andreou says,
Labour is a party plagued by Magical Thinking. Reality has disappeared from view. Oblivion beckons.
This is a disaster. Politics is not a game. It is vital, and a strong Labour Party is needed. The real lives of ordinary people depend on it. Unfortunately, a large section of the Party has abandoned intelligence, and are ignoring the experience and judgement of elected Members of Parliament in favour of their fantasies. The result is that they are supporting the management against the workers and calling it "true socialism." They are replicating the actions of the authorities who ensured that our rebellions ended in failure. And we were proved right far too often. Sometimes our problems were fatal.

The question of the future of the left in Europe is really difficult, but I can assure you that one way to solve the conundrum is not to have the Labour Party lead by someone who is a living example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.


An excellent account of the failure of the leadership challenge here. Well worth reading. It shows something else that I found as well in working life. However inept managers were at the real job, they knew how to cling on to it - ruthlessly.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Revolting populism

I've been enjoying my break in Greece and have neglected most of my writing, including this blog.

I want to pick it up again because of something that I have noticed more and more. It's becoming a bit of conventional wisdom amongst some on the left. This is the idea that both Brexit and the support for Trump are mainly benign working class rebellions. This article by Martin Jaques is a typical example.

It uses a superficial definition of populism:
This popular revolt is often described, in a somewhat denigratory and dismissive fashion, as populism. Or, as Francis Fukuyama writes in a recent excellent essay in Foreign Affairs: “‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like.” Populism is a movement against the status quo.
Then he puts Brexit into that category.
Brexit is a classic example of such populism. It has overturned a fundamental cornerstone of UK policy since the early 1970s. Though ostensibly about Europe, it was in fact about much more: a cri de coeur from those who feel they have lost out and been left behind, whose living standards have stagnated or worse since the 1980s, who feel dislocated by large-scale immigration over which they have no control and who face an increasingly insecure and casualised labour market. Their revolt has paralysed the governing elite, already claimed one prime minister, and left the latest one fumbling around in the dark looking for divine inspiration.
And desperate to fit the Trump and Brexit phenomena into his class analysis he asserts,
Brexit, too, was primarily a working-class revolt.
We still don't have a proper academic study of voter behaviour in the referendum, but three things are apparent from a look at the figures and they don't bear Jaques out.

1. The working class Brexit vote was subject to the same demographic divides as the vote as a whole. It was weaker amongst younger voters and in the major cities, and was strongest in marginal or "left behind" areas. It was the product of a divided, not united working class.

2. Despite the presence of this vote, it was a minority in the Brexit vote as a whole. Far more votes piled up in the prosperous areas of the South than they did in poorer areas of the North. This was not primarily a working class revolt, it was a quintessential Conservative revolt. It's main base was affluent, suburban and rural, older voters.

3. That revolt was supported by a substantial number working class voters whose discontents have been ignored and whose views have been patronised.

I think that this is important too, however real the basis of working class voters discontent is, it does not mean that they are right about the solution. Trump and Farage are not their saviours. The interests they promote are those of the wealthy. Leaving the EU and curtailing immigration will not improve their lot and may make it worse.

What this working class sentiment does is present the political left with dilemmas. How do you gain the support of a large group of potential voters who have left Labour without alienating others? Thirty per cent of Labour voters may have voted to leave the EU, but that means seventy per cent voted to remain. How do you build a coalition with both? Without either, defeat is certain. In my eyes, too much conventional wisdom is favouring the minority, paying lip service to regressive sentiments. The poverty and insecurity that besets so many of these communities has to be decisively defeated, but how? We need intelligent engagement and respect, not empty slogans. It won't be easy. I doubt if EU membership is a high salience issue, but immigration certainly is. Once again, the answer lies in creating a credible alternative political economy. I see little sign of it at the moment.

The task is urgent. We should reject Jaques' flabby and superficial definition of populism. In this excellent piece, Jan-Werner Müller gets populism absolutely right.
There is a tragic irony in all this: populism in power commits the very political sins of which it accuses elites: excluding citizens and usurping the state. What the establishment supposedly has always done, populists will also end up doing. Only with a clear justification and, perhaps, even a clear conscience. Hence it is a profound illusion to think that populists, as potential leaders of Gray’s “revolt of the masses”, can improve our democracies. Populists are just different elites who try to grab power with the help of a collective fantasy of political purity.
It really is worth reading the article in full. Let's think historically. An alliance between disaffected workers and the petit-bourgeoisie was the class base of fascism. We aren't there today, but there are some unpleasant movements on the march. This isn't a time for complacency.