Monday, July 22, 2019

Historical fiction and political fact

From Hilary Mantel's final Reith lecture, Adaptation, last broadcast on July 15th 2017.
I have written a novel called The Giant O’Brien, loosely based on the true story of a real-life giant who came to London in the 1780s, to exhibit himself for money. In my version, the giant is more than a freakishly tall man: he is the embodiment and carrier of myth, and he has a fund of stories about love and war and talking animals and saints. His followers join in, shouting up with jokes and plot twists of their own. He tries to incorporate them and keep everybody happy. 

So his stories are interactive, democratic and popular –the only trouble is, they are corrupt. They get further and further from the story as he knows it to be. In the end, he realizes the folly of telling people what they want to hear. He says, ‘Stories cannot save us...Unless we plead on our knees with history we are done for, we are lost.’
This is Johnson's candidature for leader of the Conservative Party - precisely. And amidst the interminable journalistic noise, amongst the panic, hyperbole, speculation, and dark fantasies, something more banal looms. It's inescapable. It cannot be avoided. Reality. And as Mantel said earlier in her lecture:
Reality has a coercive force.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Sacred facts

I have just read the late Hans Rosling's final book, Factfulness. It's one of those wonderful books that make me wish that I was still teaching, because I would be incorporating it into everything. It's about data, statistics and their misuse, cognitive biases, and the most important thing of all - the fact that we are wrong most of the time about global development. And that is everybody. For instance, he gives one example of a group of Nobel laureates who performed far worse than random when they took his test of their knowledge.* Hence his play on the word 'mindfulness' in his title.

All the way through I was thinking about how these insights relate to the EU referendum. They are very relevant.

1. One of his main points is about big numbers. When they are presented on their own without anything to compare them with, they can seem much bigger than they really are. The real sin of the £350 million per week on the side of the bus was not that the amount was wrong, which is what all the arguments have been about, but that it was presented without anything to give people a way of judging its relative size. It sounds huge. In the context of government spending, it's small. If they had written, 'just under 1% of government spending goes to the EU,' then people would have understood the cost much better. But that was the point. They weren't supposed to.

It's the same with the tedious mantra, '17.4 million people voted to leave.' This is also misleading because it has no context. It's used in this way to make it sound bigger than it is. If they say 52% voted to leave, then they are showing that it was a small majority. My favourite rejoinder is to point out that 29 million people didn't vote to leave, and that fabled 17.4 million is, in fact, a minority.

The full figures were 17,410,742 voted leave, 16,141,242 voted to remain, and 12,949,258 didn't vote. That's a lot of non-voters. Nearly 28% of the total and more than ten times the size of the leave majority. Taken in context, the numbers show a very fragile majority on the day, an overall minority, and no national consensus behind leaving at all.

Now, if we take the British Social Attitudes Survey, though it records a growth in scepticism about the EU, it has never shown a majority for leaving it. The highest recorded opinion in favour of exit was 41% (see page 5, table 1) in the year of the referendum, and it has been dropping since. So how did we end up with a majority to leave in the referendum? It was a quirk of turnout. Nothing else. Those non-voters decided it. That doesn't give a strong mandate. Opinion surveys have been showing a remain majority of 8-10% for more than a year. Yet we are pursuing Brexit purely on the basis that a majority want it. As well as the obvious point that if a majority support a bad idea it is still a bad idea, it's clear that they don't, and never have.

We don't think of abstainers very often. We should do more. Are they disengaged, disaffected, idle, uninformed, baffled, feel unwilling to judge or unable to take sides, or are they simply ill or away on the day? It's difficult to know why people don't participate and we put little effort into researching non-voting. That's a mistake. For instance, the slump in turnout and the drop in Labour's vote in 2001 should have set alarm bells ringing in New Labour instead of them reassuring themselves with the complacency engendered by their large majority of seats.

2. Another of Rosling's points is that we love binary explanations. The human brain is very comfortable with the simplicity of either/or. We tend to fall for it the whole time - the many and the few, people from somewhere and people from anywhere, with us or against us, the metropolitan elite or real people, etc. The list goes on and on. It is almost always wrong as most people cluster around a whole range of median positions rather than the poles.

Look at those abstentions again. Then add in the evidence that many of the people who did vote were unsure and undecided until the last minute. Suddenly, the picture that we are constantly being given of a violently polarised society, even one on the brink of civil war, looks crazy. However, the idea has taken such a hold that even some Labour MPs are saying they will support no-deal so fearful are they of the anger of leavers. They also feel a duty towards the left behind, working class voters who are supposed to want to leave, even though the data shows that not to be true.

We do have strongly committed organisations backing both leave and remain. The larger ones, judging by membership and the size of demonstrations and rallies, are for remain. They are against change. They tend to be on the liberal/left because they want to defend the internationalist, social democratic, post-war settlement. The smaller groups are mainly on the right, with a few left hangers-on, and they want to smash the settlement, regardless of the consequences. They want a nationalist revolution, strangely being fomented in the Conservative Party. But the mass of people are not involved. Some identify with the two polarities to various degrees, though they are often semi-detached. But many others are bored, confused, uninterested, and bewildered. They just want it to stop. Britain has not changed that much. Politicians and journalists need to remember that Twitter is not the real world.

There is another consequence of this false polarisation. The referendum was presented as a binary choice when the options were non-binary. There are several ways to leave the EU, each with different consequences. This produced a Condorcet Paradox. Remain, a single option, is more popular than each of the individual leave options, even if the combined leave vote was higher. Leaving cannot be done other than by going against popular opinion.

3. There are other things to take from the book. Three stand out. Urgency produces panic and bad decision making. This is why Tusk was right and Macron wrong about the length of the extension to Article 50. We needed more time to take stock and resolve our own constitutional crisis. Macron has put us under the sort of destructive pressure we imposed on ourselves by invoking Article 50 without a clue about what we wanted to get from it.

Secondly, the whole theme of the book about our wholesale ignorance of basic facts could not have been better illustrated by the bizarre sight of our prospective Prime Minister waving a kipper around, decrying EU smoked fish packaging regulations that were not EU regulations, but UK ones. All the while the audience cheered on the increased risk of getting listeria. Neither remainers nor leavers had much idea about the workings of the EU. Gathering by the abysmal quality of the debate and the coverage in the national media, they still don't. The few who do know - the experts in trade and international law for example - are holding their heads in their hands.

Finally, Rosling makes the point that we should resist blaming individuals and look at the system. Given the cast of Brexit this is hard, so hard, but he has a point. If there is one thing that this mess shows us, it is that the use of referendums on their own as a way of deciding complex issues is ridiculous. 'Respect the result of the referendum,' may trip smoothly off the tongue, but it raises four questions. Is respecting the same as implementing? Should we treat a tiny majority as an overwhelmingly decisive one? Should we deliver the result regardless of the consequences? And, why should we respect a process as manifestly unfit for purpose as this one was?

*You can take the test and find out more on Rosling's Gapminder foundation's website. And you really should read the book.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

No deal please, we're British

No deal doesn't exist. It's a fantasy politics in which we sail off into the blue having cut all ties with the EU. Even if we flounce off, the crisis will be so bad we will be back asking for a deal within months. The terms will be tougher and we will be weaker than we already are. It will be the start of decades of negotiation with the EU and others, with our reputation shredded, all trust destroyed, and our economy and currency severely damaged. Other nations will not be queueing up to offer us lucrative trade deals, but to pick the carcass. International trade is hard-nosed and we will be desperate.

Why this stupidity then? Why even consider it? Panic is one reason. There is nothing like it for clouding judgement. But the main two reasons seem to be a) to win the Tory leadership contest where the minuscule electorate is similarly deranged, and b) as a negotiating strategy for a negotiation that is over.

As for the strategy, let's call it the Varoufakis strategy. Because it's his. He is an expert on game theory after all. This is where the weakest party to a negotiation spends a few months insulting its partners, then, bolstered by a referendum on whether to accept the terms of a deal that has expired and no longer exists, calls the bluff of people who aren't bluffing by threatening them with an act of self-harm. It didn't work. Are you surprised?

Now read this excellent piece by Viktoria Dendrinou and Eleni Varvitsioti. It's about the end game of the 2015 negotiations.
...“If Greece left the euro zone, clearly the first thing that would happen would be that the new currency would have no credibility,” an official involved in the discussions says. “No one would want to hold that currency, so you would soon enter into a spiral of devaluation.” This meant the currency would keep losing its value against the euro, a fall that would feed inflation and in turn further currency weakness, making imports more expensive. This would have major implications for Greek debt, as it still would be denominated in euros. A likely immediate depreciation of 50% against the euro would instantly boost the debt-to-GDP ratio, which in June 2015 stood at 180%. The ratio would immediately double to 360% and very soon to 500%, given the impact on the economy. This meant a “very significant debt restructuring would be necessary,” the plan said.

The paradox was that the only sure thing about a Grexit would be that the country would immediately need another bailout. It felt almost absurd, going through all this trouble to avoid a bailout, only to enter a situation where another one would be needed.
Given this situation, Tsipras had little option other than negotiate a new bailout. This describes no-deal Brexit precisely. We would need a deal to counter the consequences of not having a deal. The conditions of getting a deal would be the conditions that we walked away from a deal to avoid.

There is a big difference between us and Greece in 2015. We are the masters of our own destiny. We don't have to do this. We are in an insane trap. At one end is danger, at the other a safe exit. We can revoke, remain, and start to repair the damage we have already done. We continue to walk towards danger and a potential disaster. Why?

Monday, July 08, 2019

Labouring the point

Here's an organisation that will sound familiar to many. The management have survived an overwhelming vote of no confidence from key workers. They have given themselves large pay rises while staff are threatening to go on strike over both pay and management style. The management is so upper class it has been profiled in The Tatler. Recruitment is nepotistic, with sons, daughters and friends of senior managers taking up important and lucrative posts. The management has been accused of covering up sexual harassment by one of its number. Now it is employing one of the most expensive firm of lawyers to send threatening letters to whistle-blowing staff who have signed non-disclosure agreements as part of their severance. Yep, it's the Labour Party.

Labour are polling at historic low levels. This is in the face of an appalling government hell-bent on delivering a national catastrophe. Canvassers report that Corbyn is toxic on the doorstep and his approval ratings are derisory. At a time of national crisis, all that is visible are the scandals. Now we know that Labour will always face a hostile press, but managing that is part of the job that Labour has to do. Its handling of press relations have been awful. The leader is nowhere to be seen. Their spokespeople talk in meaningless, pre-rehearsed clichés and platitudes. On-line forums in social media are cesspits. There is no 'straight talking' or 'honest politics.'

My original objections to Corbyn's leadership were three fold.

1. I didn't think that he or the group around him had the ability to lead. There was a fundamental issue of competence.

2. Even taking them on their own terms, I didn't think that Corbyn and the group round him were left wing in any meaningful sense of the word. They could mouth the slogans, but they had no coherent philosophy or programme. They were not like Militant. They were not Marxists. They were not anything, other than being keen on re-fighting some of the old battles of the 80s. Corbyn became a cypher on to which hopeful radicals could project their desires. Brexit is killing those illusions as we are seeing his leadership sink into a vague mix of incompetent Stalinist-lite nationalism.

3. Finally, he was part of a pseudo-left circle that had long been a target. I remember how the old DSTPFW blog, which I contributed to, used to slaughter them - "Mad Dog Milne" et al. And it is this 'anti-imperialist' alliance with its crass foreign policy and obsessive hatred of Israel that has brought anti-Semitism from the fringes to the centre.

This needs a bit more explanation - and some history. In my book on 19th century anarchist ideas, I wrote about anti-Semitism and conspiracy thinking rife in the period:
[These] are not merely quaint nineteenth-century beliefs; they are persistent flaws. For example, in the twenty-first century conspiracy theories abound. Climate change denial is a near-universal belief amongst right libertarians, the 9/11 ‘Truth’ Movement has attracted even mainstream figures to its fringes, whilst much contemporary, obsessive anti-Zionism bears the distinctive stamp of older anti-Semitic discourses. These ideas may not be central, but they are a distasteful and dangerous intellectual baggage that needs jettisoning. Open discussion and historical exploration is a necessity if ever we are to banish this poisonous legacy from radical thought.
If I was writing the book today, I would be far stronger. Many of the ideas have become central. Conspiracy thinking and related populist ideas have taken the place of proper theoretical analysis. It is a dangerous failure.

Now, if I could write this about 19th century anarchism, you can see that modern left anti-Semitism has deep roots. This is why Corbyn had problems with Hobson's Imperialism (I have taught about it without mentioning Hobson's anti-Semitism as well, so I am not innocent either). Read this fine piece from History Workshop for some perspective and the argument. It makes it clear that both Corbyn and I were wrong not to mention it, and that the defensive reaction from Corbynistas shows a lack of understanding of the historic role of anti-Semitism in the left. And it's still there. It's there in the union movement. It's there in its classic conspiratorial form. But, most of all, it finds its expression in a form of anti-Zionism that is now an orthodoxy throughout the left.

Anti-Semitism is the shape-shifting hatred, which adapts to each new generation. So it is perfectly possible for anyone to condemn older forms, while not recognising, and even adopting, new forms. This results in all efforts being poured into a defence against accusations, rather than facing the reality. For example, Jewish Voice for Labour was established a couple of years ago to confront the long-established Jewish Labour Movement, who were raising the alarm of Jewish people at the growth of anti-Semitism, and to deny the existence of the problem in the Labour Party. At least Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum, has seen through it.

Denial uses two main arguments:

1.  Bad faith. The issue is only raised by Corbyn's opponents to 'smear' him. It's a lousy argument. It ignores the actual issue and focuses on the supposed motivation of the accuser. It's a standard logical fallacy and leads to depressing ad hominems instead of reasoned debate.

2. It's only a criticism of the Israeli government. Of course, the main tropes long pre-date the existence of Israel or even of Zionism itself, they are merely being used in the context of the modern conflict. There are some pretty ancient ones in there, such as the blood libel. But most of the modern labels thrown on Israel - colonial settler state, racism, etc - come from Stalinism. They were promulgated in the anti-Semitic purges that Stalin ordered throughout the Eastern Bloc in the late 40s. Zionism became an excuse for the persecution of the Jews. They have been lifted wholesale into the far left and elaborated on beyond that.

There is a real conflict of course. I have been there and seen the impact of the occupation. It's just that much of the anti-Zionist rhetoric is based on fiction rather than reality. They have recast a complex conflict as a Manichean struggle between good and an ultimate evil. That evil is, of course, Jewish. The struggle, rather than being seen as a protracted regional conflict, is portrayed as central to the fight for a righteous world - as has always been the case with opposition to Judaism in which ever guise it manifested itself (David Nirenberg's magnificent intellectual history, Anti-Judaism, is essential reading on this). The real conflict is intrinsically linked to Jewish history, including the European genocide, but also that of the indigenous Jewish communities of the Middle East, which pre-date Arab colonisation in the seventh century and whose descendants form the majority of the modern Israeli population. The modern conflict is also part of the nationalist response to the break up of the Ottoman Empire and the nature of the Middle East as a diverse patchwork of ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities. Some of the stuff I see bears as much relation to reality as Widdicombe's ravings about membership of the EU being a form of slavery. It does the Palestinians no favours either, often romanticising their oppressors.

Once this conflict, real or fictitious, is described through anti-Semitic tropes and using anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, then it crosses the boundary into anti-Semitism. It doesn't matter whether the rhetorical target is Israel or Zionism if the means are anti-Jewish. What's more, if those attitudes become embedded in an organisation, they become invisible and unconscious, falling under the Macpherson definition of institutional racism.

This isn't just a problem for Labour. This is a Europe-wide crisis. There will be a TV programme on it this week, and already people who haven't seen it are piling on with their rebuttals. Let's take it seriously instead. Let's admit the reality. Let's analyse it. There are good tools for doing so.

How I would love to see the Labour Party respond openly and effectively. I would love it to adress its multiple failings of leadership. I can't remember a time in my life when an effective Labour Party was more essential. I can't remember a time when it was so weak. Recovery means mental honesty and grappling with reality, rather than abusive factionalism. This isn't a game. Real people's lives are at stake.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019