Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Don't mention the EU

They keep coming. Every day I get sent another adoring meme and article, often from idiotic sources like the Canary, glorifying the achievements of Jeremy Corbyn. I half expect to see one on his latest bowel movements - the holy turd of St Jezza - as an exemplar of his exceptional virtue. I grew up in a tradition that was sceptical of leaders and so I find this outpouring unintelligent, disturbing and nauseous.

However, not one person I know, not a single one, shared his Mirror article from 17 June. I am not surprised as most of my Corbynista friends are firmly pro-EU. Corbyn writes:
We would start by confirming that Britain is leaving the EU. The issue of Brexit is settled...
Leaving the EU will mean freedom of movement will end...
Leaving the European Union means Britain will have a different relationship with the single market.
But jobs and the economy will be our priority, and the final Brexit deal needs to keep the benefits of the EU single market and the customs union.
That means we will seek continued tariff-free access to the European market, with no new non-tariff burdens for British business.
This is mad. Ending freedom of movement means leaving the single market. If we leave the single market, then we cannot keep all the benefits of membership. This has been made perfectly clear from day one. Retaining our current benefits outside the EU is a fantasy. The best that can be hoped for is a deal that will be worse, but not catastrophically so. The only way to get a deal as good as we have currently is to remain members.

What this article is doing is not proposing a 'soft Brexit,' but using soft words to conceal a 'hard Brexit.' It's a commonplace way of arguing and isn't confined to any one political party. Two tricks are the most frequent. The first is over freedom of movement. Corbyn wrote about how it will be replaced:
In its place, we will back fair rules and reasonable management of migration, underpinned by tough action to end the undercutting of pay and conditions by unscrupulous employers and to stop overseas-only recruitment.
Notice anything missing? You probably haven't because it's rarely mentioned. Freedom of movement is a reciprocal right. It isn't just about immigration. If he said, 'in order to bring in new rules to manage immigration we will have to strip all British citizens of their right to live, work, run a business, or retire in any other EU country,' he would be telling the whole truth. But it doesn't sound quite as good does it? Confining the debate to immigration distorts the real meaning of freedom of movement. It only tells half the story.

The second is that people elide between membership of the single market and access to the single market. They are not the same thing. Access to the single market is universal. Anyone can trade into it. Sometimes the terms of trade can be made more favourable by a separate trade deal, but the full benefits are only available to members. Pretending otherwise is deceitful.

And so we are stuck within a pointless debate which all rests on the premise that a narrow majority in a poorly constructed referendum should overrule all other democratic decision making processes, because it represents the permanent and immutable will of the people for all time - even if they change their minds afterwards. This is mad. And as the benefits remain elusive, while the huge costs, the impact on people's lives, the scary economic damage, and the loss of liberties become more apparent, this premise looks more foolish by the minute.

We have a divided country. We have a divided governing party. We have a divided Labour Party trying to appease two divided constituencies of voters. Instead of dealing with realities, we have entered a world of wishful thinking where soft-sounding waffle can magic away reality. We have landed ourselves in an unconscionable mess, and I doubt whether we have a political class with enough courage and intelligence to get us out of it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017


After hubris comes nemesis. The schadenfreude of watching May's supreme confidence vanish in a cloud of platitudes was intense. Instead of oblivion, something I expected, Labour is now well placed. Corbyn has shown himself to be a proficient campaigner. Age has softened his image, if not the reality, but elections are all about smoke and mirrors and not details. Labour have had their Dunkirk; a triumphant defeat that is the basis for future victory. But beware of hubris on their part. I want to sound some notes of caution.

1. The obvious – Labour didn't win. They need 56 more seats to even catch up with the Conservatives. It was their third consecutive defeat. They are still a long way behind.

2. To make matters worse, Labour finished third in Scotland, overtaken by the Scottish Conservative Party who had been an irrelevance for decades. Even though there was a recovery for Labour, this points to fragility in its support.

3. Look at the data. This was the best share of the vote the Conservatives have had for thirty years. Yes, this Tory crisis really has been brought about by their best result since 1987. How so? Once again it's down to the arbitrariness of the electoral system. This election saw a return to predominantly two-party voting, particularly in England. The shrinking of support for minority parties has meant that the result in 2017 is more proportional to vote share than previously. If there had been any form of proportional representation in 2015, then the Tories wouldn't have had a majority to lose. The momentum may be with Labour, but the Tory base is also stronger.

4. The Labour vote, as in every election, was not homogenous. It was a coalition of different social and demographic groups, and of differing political outlooks. Though Corbyn's electoral strength was underestimated, the increased Labour vote share also includes those who voted Labour despite it being led by Corbyn.

5. The Conservatives are in control. The DUP despise Corbyn because of his republican sympathies and will always block him. Labour need the Tories to muck it up, which they are more than capable of doing of course, but they may also be shrewd at exploiting openings.

What all this points to is the need for consolidation not triumphalism. I suppose you can excuse celebrations and outbursts of idiocy, but in the end Labour have to be seen as a government in waiting.

The one great issue that a government needs to face is Brexit. It was ignored in the election, despite it being the single most significant event in the last fifty years. It's a bit like cleaning the oven, one of those jobs you keep putting off because it's too unpleasant. Parties are hiding behind the mantra that they will 'deliver the result of the referendum.' No one dares to question whether that decision was actually wise or not (or even deliverable!). Nor do they consider the dissensus rather than consensus that it produced. But what is unforgiveable is that they are completely unprepared for the complexity of the task and reluctant to acknowledge the damage it may cause. May's decision to invoke article 50 and then call an election is a monumental error. It should have been the other way round. The clock is counting down and there isn't a government to head negotiations. If we were serious about leaving, then article 50 should have been invoked only after all the preparatory work had been done.

Labour's position should be clear. Wait and seize the opportunities when they arise. Instead, the leadership went ahead and adopted the position of UKIP. Mirroring Corbyn's utterly stupid call for invoking article 50 immediately after the referendum, they have made it clear that their priority is ending free movement and thus exiting the single market. They have boxed themselves in.

Whether there is a political cost to be paid, who knows? A more sensible stance may appear. I'm not predicting anything. But it smacks of overconfidence and an underestimation of the consequences of the realities of Brexit, while failing to look over their shoulder at the uneasy coalition of voters that have raised their hopes, despite yet another defeat. 

Friday, June 09, 2017

Wrong again

Yes, I got it wrong. Pretty comprehensively wrong. It's a talent I have.

At this point everybody who did get it wrong about the election starts writing pieces about how, although they got it wrong, the fact that they were wrong proves that they were right all along. I can't disappoint the tiny number of readers of this blog.

Over the years I have been banging on about two things. The first is the need for a new and credible left political economy to challenge orthodoxy. The time for it is now. There is an electoral coalition for the reinvention of a neo-Keynesian social democratic settlement.

More recently, I have been saying that the significant demographic divide in politics is generational. The young voted. This is a great moment of hope, because the previous assumption that there was a realignment where a left political economy was tied to social conservatism is wrong. The new generation of voters is socially liberal, pro Europe, and relaxed about immigration.

Now, some caveats.

First, I haven't changed my views of Corbyn, and especially his foreign policy and support for awful movements and regimes. They have been formed over thirty years. There is still a fight to be had over where Labour stands.

Second, this wasn't a victory for Corbyn alone. In fact it wasn't even a victory, he lost. Both the Conservative and Labour votes increased. But it is one of those moments when political change became a real possibility. And the "progressive majority" has returned. Though the country is polarised, a majority didn't vote for the right. This was a success for the Labour Party as a whole. It was a campaign fought locally as well as centrally. Right, left, and centre candidates worked hard and did well. And Labour didn't win, they came close, and they recovered amazingly from a terrible position. Think back to how bad the local election results were just a month ago! Retreating into sectarianism would throw this opportunity away.

Third, I am old. This is a bit of a bugger, but true. And like a lot of older people, I can lapse into pessimism. I don't feel like that today though. I feel that there is an opportunity now, but probably for people younger than me. But if I am old, I am younger than the leadership. This is still an interregnum. What comes next is what matters.

Finally, and this is the most important, there is Brexit. It was the reason for the election and never mentioned. This is an extraordinary constitutional and economic revolution to be undertaken with a flimsy mandate that has just been made flimsier. This is the defining issue. It has the potential to create huge damage. Where is our strategy for that? Ian Dunt put it well before the election:
It is not an elephant in the room. It is a stampede approaching at speed, to which we have stared, shrugged and continued with our little tea party. If historians do bother to assess what happened in this election they will be left aghast at our complacency.
Brexit could wreck everything.

Let's leave the Daily Mash to inject a sense of proportion:
LABOUR leader Jeremy Corbyn has congratulated himself after being beaten by a political idiot.
True, but I'm still smiling. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Half full glasses

The bad managers that I have worked under have generally fallen into two broad types. The first surprised you by their rise until you saw them in interview, where they were smooth, warm, and pleasant. Doubts first arose when you probed beneath the surface and found the deceits, illusions and ignorance. Then they tried to do something and everything fell apart round them, leaving a trail of exasperated staff.

The second rose effortlessly, often by default. They were suggested for posts. People thought them safe choices, solid performers; they seemed to embody stability. They had carefully hidden their lack of capacity behind all the right language and tended to be control freaks, claiming the credit for the work of others and letting little or no light fall on what they really did. They too were destructive.

Both types tend to be disloyal to their colleagues, are ambitious narcissists, and completely lack a sense of humour.

This might sound familiar. Corbyn v May. The election from hell.

Corbyn has shown his impressive qualities as a campaigner. Though he is still only really comfortable in front of large, adoring crowds, he has taken to appearing as a kindly, righteous man in front of the TV cameras. People have warmed to him. He has controlled himself when challenged; his tendency to lose his temper has been curtailed. But then interviewers rarely ask the really difficult questions. He got away with defending his dodgy past alliances with lines about being prepared to deal with people or read articles that he 'profoundly disagreed with.' Nobody followed up by asking precisely who or what he disagreed with. Imprecision permits elision.

(His real ability as a campaigner raises huge questions as to why he was so inept during the EU referendum, making me think that Alan Johnson's charge of sabotage has a great deal of merit.)

As for May, can anyone remember a worse Conservative campaign? The ruthless party of power is doing everything it can to show that it has completely lost the plot. The manifesto offered nothing. May ran on leadership and presented none. The party tried to build a cult of personality around someone bland and inarticulate who offered no human warmth. I used to think that she spoke in platitudes only because she had been trained to. Now I tend to believe that it's all she's able to do. Her stilted delivery shows her to be incapable of spontaneity.

The Conservatives will win of course. They were always going to, despite how hard they have tried to lose it. The polls are contradictory because we are seeing a huge experiment in methodology, mainly over turnout of young voters, giving disparate results. One group of polls shows a narrow Tory lead, and projections that suggest the possibility of a hung parliament. The other group shows a comfortable Conservative lead and a large majority of seats. Not one has shown a Labour lead. Every one has shown a stable Tory vote around the mid 40s, the same share of the vote that gave Thatcher and Blair landslides because of the distorting effect of the electoral system. And even if there is an unprecedentedly high turnout amongst young voters, there aren't enough of them and they are in the wrong place. The highest concentration of young voters is in constituencies that Labour already holds.

Especially early in the campaign, there were comparisons with the election of 1983, but they are false. The differences are profound. The calibre of the two leaders is a given. Foot was a man of considerably more intellectual and political accomplishments than Corbyn, while the comparison between May and Thatcher is risible. Corbyn was the wrong leader with the worst ratings, so May had a head start before she proceeded to show her own failings. But these are superficial disparities. There are three main structural differences. First, Scotland has been lost to Labour. Secondly, the third party vote has collapsed. In 1983 Labour had a three-way fight with the SDP/Liberal Alliance. Finally, it was the split in Labour that gave Thatcher the landslide. 54% of the vote went to the two centre-left parties in 1983. In 2015 something different happened. For the first time in decades more than 50% voted for the right. There is no "progressive majority." I could be wrong, but all the data points to a Tory win.

I am, and remain, Labour of course, just as I am in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union. Obviously, I am in despair about British politics at the moment. I weep at the general lack of ability of the political class. But there are things that cheer me. First, let's all celebrate the demise of UKIP. The threat of a British version of the parties of Wilders and Le Pen was real. Now, it seems to have returned to the fringes where it belongs.

Secondly, the impending death of the Labour Party has been exaggerated. It isn't healthy obviously, but there are signs of life. It has been intellectually moribund for a long while and has polarised around two nostalgias. Both are anachronistic and fictitious views of the past. The one looks back to Attlee, the other pines for the king over the water, Blair. Neither engages critically with the real history of their heroes' conflicts and failures, as well as their concrete and impressive achievements. Both are viewed selectively. Both are the past. However, this is an interregnum. Something is stirring in the parliamentary party. It's predominantly female too. This isn't down to anything specifically about gender.  It's a feature of the decline of the Trade Unions and the rise of the voluntary sector as the source of candidates with a grip on reality, ready to challenge the teachers and lawyers that still dominate.

This is a real social movement. It's doing more than filling in gaps where the welfare state has eroded. It's providing advocacy and employment. There are credit unions fighting off the loan sharks, tenants' associations struggling for housing rights, community development groups, LETS schemes, social entrepreneurship, child care schemes, disability rights groups, women's refuges, the list goes on and on. They are small-scale, participatory, and hugely practical. And they are mainly staffed by women. The politically ambitious amongst them are moving into Labour politics. Their real, grass roots activism contrasts with those that think that being an activist means going to meetings and demonstrations. They are a voice for democratic decentralisation and for participatory democracy. They have roots in the real lives of working class people. I think that this is the basis of a left renewal.

Finally, the hope lies with the young. The generational divide in British politics has never been so stark. The young are overwhelmingly Labour. They are also overwhelmingly pro-EU. There is a contradiction in that Labour has implicitly committed itself to support a hard Brexit and ending free movement. But closing a door can mean different things to different people, it can lock out, but for those looking for something more, it can shut in. This has been an election about Brexit that has never mentioned it. But the realities have not yet hit. Reality tends to change the minds of all but the most ideologically committed. Brexit is an issue that Labour has dodged so far from cowardice. If it is to hold the young, then it must face it.

It's almost like finding optimism in my own demise, but I can see a new "progressive majority" emerging from a different generation. It won't look the same as the old one, but just as Labour faces an excruciating defeat, it promises relief from a bleak future.