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.