Friday, 17 May 2019

End Times

The current apocalyptic air of political commentary is not a new development, despite the well-publicised angst over Nigel Farage's renewed prominence and the belief that, as Ian Dunt puts it, "Both parties [are] frozen in terror as Brexit destroys the system". The trope of ruin is a longstanding feature of British politics, going back through Thatcher's hyperbole in 1979 and Churchill's "gestapo" jibe in 1945 to the Zinoviev letter of 1924. The common characteristic is the Tories' fear of Labour, whether the latter is presented as a growing menace or as a declining faction of extremists and incompetents. What is relatively novel today is that the Tories aren't in control of the narrative, which has resulted in a shift in focus from the economy and society (i.e. the threat to material interests and privileges) towards the specialised interest of the political system itself. This has played to the advantage of centrists and constitutional obsessives (often the same people), but it has also paradoxically led to an even more extreme reading of events in which both the main parties are assumed to be heading for extinction.

The latest opinion polls suggest that not only will the Brexit Party win the most votes next Thursday but that Labour may be relegated to third, behind the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives may find themselves way back in fifth place behind the Greens. This seems unprecedented, but only if you haven't been paying attention. UKIP "won" the 2014 elections to the European Parliament with 27% of the vote, while Labour got 24% and the Tories 23%. In the 2009 election Labour got only 15% and was relegated to third, as UKIP got 16% and the Tories came first with 27%. In other words, we've been here before and the party system survived. You could argue that UKIP's good showing in 2014 was a contributory factor to the Tories acceptance that a referendum on EU membership was unavoidable, but you can't argue that it was a harbinger of a failure of the traditional two-party system, not least because the Tories won in 2015 and both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats imploded. That the 2017 general election saw Labour and the Conservatives post their best combined share of the vote since 1970 should also not be ignored.

The European Parliament election is clearly little more than a large-scale opinion poll on the state of Brexit. For many journalists this is about "the people sending Parliament a message", yet the distribution of votes suggested by recent polls is not dissimilar to the current balance of opinion in the Commons in that there isn't a clear majority for either no-deal or revoke. If we combine the Brexit Party and UKIP, the polls suggest the implied no-deal vote will be just shy of 40%, while the combined vote for the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Greens and Change UK will be around the same mark. Even if the Conservative and Labour votes erode further, it is difficult to see either the no-deal or revoke position getting close to 50%, and that's without acknowledging that quite a few votes in each column aren't for an uncompromising hard Brexit or immediate revocation but are likely to be variations of "just get on with it" or a belief that there should be a second referendum on the government's proposed deal.

But while there is little reason to believe that either Nigel Farage or whoever replaces Vince Cable will be the next Prime Minister, it is reasonable to suspect that a reconstitution of the political landscape is underway. The breakdown of the recent YouGov poll shows that Labour's vote remains more resilient than the Tories. It's clearly divided, with leavers attracted to the Brexit Party and remainers to the Lib Dems and Greens, but it is nowhere near the mass desertion the Tories are facing. It is also clear that Labour's support is weighted towards the young while the Tories haemorrhage to the Brexit Party is weighted towards the old. The implication is that the bulk of the Conservative Party not only wants a hard Brexit but that it wishes to move towards a more generally reactionary position, hence the emphasis of the contenders in the current leadership phoney war on law-and-order and national security, and the party hierarchy's reluctance to address Islamophobia. It also suggests a future of decline.

Theresa May's admission that she is going to resign as party leader, possibly as early as the first week in June, has put the final nail in the coffin of the cross-party talks with Labour. Though both sides will spin the outcome to suit their own narrative, it's clear that the underlying problem was May's unwillingness, or more accurately inability, to make a substantive compromise because of the opposition of her own backbenchers. Labour had more theoretical flexibility in that it could have agreed to forgo a confirmatory referendum if the government had committed to a permanent customs union, but it is undoubtedly relieved that it didn't have to make that choice, not just because of opposition within its own ranks but because of fears it would be stitched up by a future Tory administration reneging on its side of the deal. Assuming the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is voted down next month, this means that a deal cannot be passed by the current parliament, which increases the chance of a general election.

A new leader of the Conservative Party means a new Prime Minister and that could result in either a snap general election to secure a majority for a "managed no-deal" or a vote of no confidence, assuming the new administration tries to sit on its hands until October's cliff-edge, in which Tory remainers finally rebel in numbers. Though the assumption is that this scenario is most likely if Boris Johnson is elected leader, there's a good chance it will happen regardless of who gets the top spot as it is now clear that the membership will only accept a committed no-dealer. With such a decisive shift, it is difficult to believe that liberal Tories - even opportunists like Jeremy Hunt - will stay in the party, so a split among Conservative MPs is likely. The inexorable logic of the British political centre, as the SDP learned and Change UK are now discovering, is that you have to fold into the Liberal party to stand any chance of survival. Ironically, the coalition years have made that prospect much more palatable for socially liberal, remain-supporting Tories.

One obvious result of a reconfiguration of the centre-right is that the Lib Dems will have to give up the idea (which existed more as a fiction in the media than a reality on the ground) that their principal opponent is Labour. Outflanking on the left made tactical sense during the years of Blair and Kennedy, but it was shown to be a bait-and-switch under Clegg and there is no reason to believe that the party's current relative success is down to its ability to attract former Labour supporters. If anything, it is winning back the middle-class voters who deserted it in 2015 for the Cameroonian Tories. Labour's vulnerability among the young and metropolitan is to the Green Party, however that is unlikely to lead to lost seats while we retain first-past-the-post. Similarly, leavers who desert Labour for the Brexit Party next week are unlikely to switch en masse to the Tories in a general election (and despite Farage's claims, the Brexit Party are unlikely to stand if the Conservatives commit to no-deal). Farage is a protest vote but Johnson would be a protest too far.

The one factor in all this speculation that we shouldn't forget is the Conservative Party's instinct for self-preservation. I don't mean by this that they'll pull back from the brink - they have an unrivalled history of stupidity, after all - but that they are sufficiently ruthless and unprincipled enough to break every rule and norm in pursuit of power. That, after all, is why they regularly deploy the trope of ruin against even the most innocuous of Labour oppositions, hence David Cameron's "chaos with Ed Miliband" routine. They are now in the process of defenestrating the Prime Minister, despite this being contrary to their own house rules, and are likely to embrace a no-deal policy that only a small minority of its MPs really believe in. Theresa May's residual loyalty means she is already trying to do her bit by painting Labour as the remain party, presumably in the expectation of an imminent general election fought along Brexit lines. If Nigel Farage gets a peerage in her resignation honours list, you'll know the fix is in.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Deja Vu

The league season has ended with Arsenal in fifth, which is an improvement on the previous season's sixth. Reinforcing the sense of near deja vu, the goals for and against would have been identical had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang completed a hat-trick against Burnley on Sunday and so monopolised the Golden Boot. In the event we scored a total of 73 and conceded 51, compared to last season's 74 and 51. The goodish news is that we ended with 7 more points, 70 versus 63, though there are obviously regrets that we couldn't garner a few more during the poor run we experienced in April. An additional 3 points would have been enough to put us in third and finish above both Chelsea and Spurs. A full reckoning on Unai Emery's first season will obviously have to await the Europa League final in Baku on the 29th of this month. Win silverware, and thereby qualify for next season's Champions League, and it will be judged a success. Lose and it will be judged a failure. In reality, both attitudes would be extreme.

I think this has been a classic transitional season and that Arsenal are some way short of being a team that can challenge in both the domestic league and in Europe. That we have got to a final in the latter reflects a general decline in continental standards, which the eulogising of Ajax's youngsters and Barcelona's ageing genius cannot hide. Napoli and Valencia were actually disappointing in the flesh, and it's clear that the leading clubs of recent decades, such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Juventus, aren't as good as they were a few years ago. That the two European finals are being contested by four English teams has more to do with the relative dominance of the English Premier League than plucky comebacks and bulldog spirit, and that dominance in turn reflects the steady impact of money. My point is not to make a disguised dig at Man City for Abu Dhabi's largesse, or to suggest that the Premier League summit is simply out of bounds, but to emphasise that Arsenal's ambitions are tied to spending.

Emery has been described as a "Europa League specialist", but that is just meaningless journalistic filler. Knockout competitions and two-legged ties are hardly esoteric and the managerial skills required to negotiate them are no different to those required to win a league match. While most cups are won by the top teams, luck plays a large part, along with momentum and self-belief. Arsenal have displayed both of the latter at times, notably in wins over Spurs, Chelsea and Man Utd, and a creditable home draw against Liverpool, but they've also had a degree of good fortune. On balance, I think we stand a good chance of beating Chelsea in Baku but much will depend on individual performances on the day. Aaron Ramsey's injury and the likelihood that Eden Hazard will want to leave on a high might favour Chelsea, but the current form of Lacazette and Aubameyang may prove crucial. Let's just hope Olivier Giroud doesn't pull an outrageous goal out of nowhere in the dying minutes.

Though memory suggests that Arsenal rode their luck in the league early on and then faded badly in the home straight, the stats tell a story of consistency in points won. Divided into three (12, 13 and 13 games), we got 24, 23 and 23 points. The goals for and against tally was 26/15, 23/20 and 24/16 (that middle period was marked by away defeats to Liverpool and Man City that added 8 goals in the debit column). Though we outscored everybody bar the top two, our goals conceded total was decidedly mid-table. Clearly we need to tighten-up in defence, and that means buying. Koscielny and Monreal can no longer be considered first-choice players given their ages, while Holding and Mavropanos remain future prospects. Sokratis has been a good acquisition but there are doubts over Mustafi. Kolasinac isn't a full-back and Lichtsteiner was a mistake. Even if we assume that Bellerin returns in good form and Mailtland-Niles continues as a makeshift full-back, it looks like Arsenal need to buy 2 or 3 decent defenders to plug the gaps.

The midfield remains confused. Torreira and Guendouzi have been positive acquisitions, but Xhaka and Ozil have both continued to frustrate. Indeed both look to have coasted on occasion as they assumed the new boys would do the running. Mkhitaryan and Elneny will probably move on - neither feels right -  and Iwobi may only have one more season to prove his worth. The chief problem with the midfield was a lack of defensive cover, but this season has also seen a dearth of goals and assists, with the front two often having to forage for themselves. This is the area where Emery's judgement will be most tested, because it isn't just about purchasing creative upgrades but figuring out a specific system of play that can provide an adequate balance between defence and attack. Up front we're looking good, but that probably means we can expect richer clubs to come calling. I think it would be a mistake to sell either Lacazette or Aubameyang, though you could see in the away victory against Valencia how a late George Graham era team could be carved out of the current squad, with Aubameyang filling the Ian Wright role.

In reality we may be forced to sell if we want to improve the defence and bring in some more creativity in the middle of the park. Though I've long been a fan of Ozil's deceptive skills, I think he would be the logical player to offload now, though whether that is possible given his handsome contract and the lack of obvious suitors is another matter. With the likes of Mustafi, Kolasinac and Mkhitaryan unlikely to command significant fees, and with the contracts of Ramsey and Welbeck having been negligently run down, Arsenal are in a difficult situation financially. Stan Kroenke shows no appetite to invest and without Champions League revenues the club will be at a disadvantage to Chelsea and Spurs over the next few seasons, despite their respective transfer ban and stadium debt pile. Perhaps the "George Graham Mk 2" thinking is that Emery can promote some of the younger talent from the academy (who came a credible 2nd in the Under-23 league) and reintegrate on-loan players such as Emile Smith-Rowe and Reiss Nelson.

Overall it's been a curate's egg of a season: some very good football in key matches, both in the EPL and Europa League, and some desultory performances in the bread-and-butter games, particularly away from home. It's a squad in which the whole is currently less than the sum of its parts, and we are no clearer about what "Emery-ball" might look like. The club's ambitions appear pragmatic, though I don't seriously imagine they're looking for the modern-day equivalent of David Hillier. An English Atletico Madrid is probably closer to the ideal: energetic, hard-to-beat, able to nick a goal. That suggests some radical squad surgery over the summer, and that in turn suggests heavy investment. While it isn't a case of Baku or bust, the difference in participation and commercial revenues between the two European competitions means that the length of this transitional period will certainly be influenced by which one we end up in next season.

Sunday, 5 May 2019

Social Mobility or Barbarism

The Social Mobility Commission's State of the Nation report has a gloomy headline: Class privilege remains entrenched as social mobility stagnates. That an arm of the state should be making such a claim might appear bracingly honest, but it is less surprising when you consider that the prescriptions are the usual neoliberal ones of investment in education for the underprivileged and providing a floor to wages. In other words, this is actually addressing poverty (in the usual insubstantial way) rather than social mobility. There is little in the report about how to better facilitate downward mobility, which is the logical corollary of any attempts to encourage upward movement, a point that even The Daily Telegraph found itself noting (in ironic contrast, The Guardian worried about the demise of the middle class). Given that this would require the commission to address sensitive subjects like private education and inheritance, you can understand why the government will be happy enough with a report that says we must do more for the poor.

Social mobility has historically been more about the expansion of opportunities through growth than a two-way movement of talent. The heyday of upward mobility, between 1945 and 1975, was a period marked by rapid, year-on-year economic growth, a massive expansion of the public sector and professions (both of which provided an escalator for the talented working class to join the middle class), and technological change away from blue-collar to white-collar jobs that provided a society-wide "rising tide". There were similar if shorter "bursts" of upward mobility in the Edwardian era and the 1920s, which led to the assumption that social progress, in the sense of class mobility, was an inevitable feature of modernity outside of wartime and depressions, though it's worth noting that systemic shocks could themselves be spurs to mobility - e.g. the broadening of experience in World War Two helped trigger the social churn of the 1950s.

Downward mobility is far more unusual than the trope of distressed gentlefolk in literature would have us believe, and the return of "patrimonial capitalism" since the 1980s has made it even rarer. That high levels of inequality nationally correlate with low levels of social mobility - the so-called Great Gatsby Curve - has been recognised for some years, but less attention has been paid to the absence of growth as the key determinant. Indeed, it's plausible to argue that the correlation of inequality and immobility simply indicates that both are symptoms of restricted growth, with Thomas Piketty's now-famous r > g formula explaining the increasing concentration of wealth and the relative dearth of new employment opportunities (sectors like IT don't employ a lot of people) explaining the greater rigidity in intergenerational roles (if there aren't new jobs in new sectors open to you then you're more likely to follow a parent's career path).

Upward social mobility during les trente glorieuses often reflected the combination of increased wages and revised occupational status more than an improvement relative to society as a whole. For example, the pre-2008 belief that "we're all middle-class now" was simply a reflection of new consumption preferences and cultural affinities, and a belated recognition of the blue-to-white-collar transition, rather than a genuine change in socio-economic standing (John Prescott, to whom the phrase is often wrongly attributed - it was actually Tony Blair - will always be looked down upon by the upper middle class regardless of how many Jags he owns). Much of what is popularly understood to be upward mobility is simply a change in perspective brought about by affluence and deindustrialisation. Between 1950 and 1980 a coal-miner would have seen a huge improvement in his standard of living. That his daughter might have gone to university and become a teacher in that time was remarkable, but it wasn't the whole story.

It is also worth bearing in mind that geographical mobility has a strong correlation with social mobility. In other words, "getting on" often means moving away. Statistical measures of social mobility look at occupational status and income, so geography should be irrelevant, but the popular perception of mobility associates geographical displacement with class deracination. In the postwar heyday, that might have meant moving to another part of town or a "new estate" (consider how often this trope appears in the literature of the time, e.g. A Kind of Loving, and how it persisted into the 70s with Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads), whereas starting in the 1980s it usually meant moving to another part of the country. That would increasingly be London, which began to be seen as parasitical on the rest of the UK, an attitude that has helped colour contemporary feelings about metropolitan values and the political class.

The problem with the up escalator of the metropolis is that the traditional markers of upward mobility, most obviously getting on the property ladder, are often least available there. You may be able to expand your cultural horizons in London, but you may not be able to achieve economic security. This has led to a greater class consciousness, in the sense of an identification among young graduates as "working class", which in turn reinforces the popular perception of reduced social mobility. That perception isn't wrong, but there is a tendency to ascribe stagnant mobility to dysfunctional factors like housing, rather than the broader nature of the economy, which is ultimately no more helpful than focusing on early-years education or the living wage. The bottom line is that upward social mobility has historically come about through strong economic growth. In an era of secular stagnation, social mobility will inevitably decline no matter how much we tinker with skills and markets.

This then raises an important question in light of the recent eXtinction Rebellion protests: is social mobility even possible in a zero-growth world? If not, then those, like the Green Party, who advocate such an approach in order to stop environmental degradation need to explain how they would prevent society ossifying. Some alternative mechanism would be required, and gesturing towards "meritocracy" or urging more public sector investment (which would be offset by reduced private sector growth) won't be enough. The truth is that a society in broad stasis, which was characteristic of all pre-industrial societies, is a society of rigid hierarchy. There may be controlled upward social mobility, such as the civil service exams of ancient China or the Catholic church of Medieval Europe, but these would be exceptions to the general rule of wealth and status preservation. In such a society, downward mobility would most often be the result of political failure, such as expropriation by the state or civil war.

So what to do? Short of weaning ourselves off the idea that social mobility is a good thing, and instead committing to the reactionary consolation of hierarchy, we might be best-advised to bias growth towards environmental restoration. While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the technophilia and colonialism that underpin some "Green New Deal" thinking, the broad idea of decarbonising the economy, and doing so rapidly, has the virtue of providing a path to sustainable growth that would also expand new employment sectors and so provide the potential for greater social mobility, particularly if it was allied with increased taxes on wealth and a structural attack on privilege. I appreciate that improving the chances of "getting on" might appear a trivial concern compared to saving the planet, but incentives matter. We can have a green economy either through social progress or social regression: the choice is ours.

Thursday, 25 April 2019

Exemplary Leadership

The elections for the European Parliament have long attracted eccentrics and grandstanders, but this year's crop of candidates are particularly eye-catching in their delusions of significance. This is for two reasons. First, Brexit has turned these elections into a large-scale opinion poll in which the candidates' beliefs beyond the central issue are largely irrelevant. Ironically, Brexit means that the European elections have lost much of their political substance. Second, the launch of two new parties with hopes of winning seats, the Brexit Party and Change UK: The Independent Group, together with the reformation of UKIP, has led to the scraping of some pretty odd barrels. A feature of this candidate pool, beyond the usual over-representation of fatuous business types, is the assumption that media prominence (or notoriety) is helpful. Though neither Claire Fox nor Rachel Johnson would accept that they are the same as Count Dankula and Sargon of Akkad, their utility is all about followers and name-recognition.

This scramble for "personalities" might appear like another unfortunate by-product of Brexit, but it is part of a wider, long-term trend away from political substance towards style: from Tony Crosland to Jess Phillips. Though the political establishment has decried the "unicornism" of Brexit and the anti-intellectualism of Trump, that same establishment lauded first Justin Trudeau and then Emmanuel Macron for their "refreshing" style and their refusal to be tied down to boring old substance on issues such as favours for the rich. The roots of this clearly go way back, through Blair and Clinton to John F Kennedy at least, but there has been a noticeable inflation during the neoliberal era as government has ceded more and more of the substance of the electorate's lives to the authority of the market, and it is no coincidence that those politicians who argue for the state to take a more substantial role, such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, are routinely criticised for their lack of leadership style as much as their "dangerous ideas". Similarly, civic groups taking a lead - eXtinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg being recent examples - are decried as cultists or harangued for having the temerity to speak out of turn.

Exemplary leadership in the neoliberal era is often confused with appropriate form, in the sense of speaking the right words and making the right gestures in the face of contingent circumstance (consider Blair's supposed coaching of the Queen in 1997 after the death of the Princess of Wales). The praise for Jacinda Arden after the Christchurch mosque attack was a recent example of this, with her largely emblematic decision to tighten New Zealand's gun laws being a case of pushing at an open door rather than persuading the country to change course through compelling argument. When government has set out to persuade, it has often proved unequal to the task, either because it lacks real commitment (the tragedy of the Iraq War was that all bar a handful of zealots knew it was a mistake from the start) or is simply incompetent (the 2016 remain campaign springs to mind). What the media meant by Arden's "leadership" was her (no doubt sincere) empathy and representation of public sentiment. In contrast, Theresa May's awkwardness and lack of empathy isn't historically unusual (cf Ted Heath), but it looks more obviously deficient in a Prime Minister who lacks substantive authority.

Much of contemporary politics can be seen as a failure of leadership, but one that reflects a systemic contradiction rather than an unfortunate dearth of talent. Neoliberalism places the CEO on a pedestal but then insists both that politicians should be more CEO-like and that politics must cede to the market. The result is politicians who are business administrators with delusions of Napoleonic grandeur. May's particular failure reflects both the division of the country and the division of the Conservative Party. Her personal culpability lies in her belief that superficially uniting the latter was more important than bridging the divide in the former. Within Tory ranks, the remain/leave divide has morphed into a more fundamental liberal/conservative culture war. According to Nick Timothy, "With Brexit and immigration the defining issues at stake, the Tories have no future as a metro, liberal party. They have to become the champions of community and solidarity. In other words, the National Party". As with earlier varieties of "realignment", such as Blue Labour and Red Toryism, this trades in imagined communities but goes the whole hog to use the N-word, rather than just euphemisms like patriotism, and implicitly yokes the national interest to reduced immigration.

Talking of imagined communities, the poor calibre of The Independent Group of MPs at their launch, with unimpressive old hacks like Mike Gapes and Anne Coffey forced blinking into the limelight, was a sign that the embryonic party would struggle to make an impact once it lost its utility as a stick with which to beat Labour. While Tom Watson's decade-long image makeover hasn't erased the memory of his past sins as a Brownite enforcer, he has the obvious advantage over Chris Leslie and Chuka Umunna of still being part of the "struggle for Labour's soul", while they are now appreciating the disadvantage of not being personally popular among the natural promoters of "sensible politics" in the media, despite their ideological congeniality. Since their departure from Labour, the core members of TIG have failed to expand beyond an agenda of resentment and entitlement, and even seem surprised that they are expected to do the hard graft required of a smaller party to secure media coverage. Banging on about Labour anti-Semitism already feels stale, not to mention hypocritical in view of the evidence of bigotry among its newly-announced candidates for the European Parliament elections.

The addition of three Tory MPs hasn't helped, both because the inevitable tonal shift to the right has made the group even more loath to be pinned down on social and economic policy (beyond the implicit "no change") and because those Tories, Anna Soubry in particular, have also been lacking in anything approaching a political vision beyond "remain". Their unwillingness to express regret for austerity or to countenance voting down the current government is not just a reflection of their true conservative beliefs, it is an object lesson in strategic folly, passing up the opportunity to create a distinctive policy position between the two main parties while throwing away their limited leverage. It's as if they simply weren't paying attention to the DUP over the last two years. That Heidi Allen has been made interim leader suggests that the new Change UK party will be characterised by an inability to articulate meaningful change, with the result that its leadership will be at best anodyne and at worst tediously bitter.

The contrast with Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party is stark. He may be a lazy chancer who flees from responsibility, but he understands what a campaigning party looks like and how to channel its energies and fortunes through a figurehead: the Farageprinzip, if you will (his decision to eschew a membership for subscribers is telling). That he is now emphasising both the "betrayal of democracy" and the need for more comprehensive change to the political system is astute as it offers a conservative radicalism that has potentially broad electoral appeal and also plays to the prejudices of many in the media (it is also amusing trolling of Change UK). Of course, this could never be translated into meaningful success in a Parliamentary election because any attempt to firm up its policy platform beyond Brexit and a nebulous critique of "the system" would result in the same tensions and embarrassments that dogged UKIP. Despite claims that it will finally unlock that elusive "Northern vote", the Brexit Party's role (beyond funding Farage's lifestyle) will be to act as a ginger group for the Conservatives.

As Nick Timothy's Telegraph article indicates, there is now an appetite within the Tory Party for a split. It is clear that around two-thirds of the membership would be happy with a "National Party" that featured not only Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg but Nigel Farage too. The parliamentary party is weighted more towards the liberal end of the spectrum, but many centrist MPs now know that preserving their political careers may require them to abandon the Conservatives and build a new support base in the form of a "metro, liberal party", in Nick Timothy's formulation. The obvious vehicle for this would be Change UK, which increasingly looks like a centre-right party and which would benefit from the focus that a full-throated commitment to liberal conservatism would bring (I suspect Leslie and Umunna could reconcile themselves to this). Were a major Conservative Party split to happen, it could potentially be terminal for the Liberal Democrats (that the collapse of both parties could be traced to the miscalculations of the coalition years would be some irony). The chief impediment to this scenario playing out is the lack of leadership, with both factions too riven by personal jealousies to easily separate and coalesce, but circumstances, most obviously a poor showing in the European Parliament elections, could force the issue.

The one party that currently appears to be in a healthy state in terms of its leadership is Labour, funnily enough. This isn't because Jeremy Corbyn is more cunning than he is given credit for, or simply because the party is on the right side of history, but because of its institutional preference for collegiate leadership. Viewed over its history, the "democratic centralisation" of the Blair years was the exception, not the rule. Corbyn has, perhaps more from habit than design, pursued an approach to leadership that is strong on genuine delegation, tolerant of disagreement and has little regard for stylistic affectation or the expectations of the media. This has been presented by both the wiseacres of the press and the Blairite rump of the PLP as weakness, division and a simple lack of suitability, which reflects both their overt hostility to Corbyn's politics and their ideological distaste for egalitarianism. The approach may well prove flawed in time, but over the last three and a half years it has been largely successful. David Cameron's "stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband" seems a long way away now.

Friday, 19 April 2019


The cramped room in which Julian Assange has lived at the Ecuadorian embassy in London these past seven years can credibly be considered a "site of memory", in Pierre Nora's famous phrase, even if its historical resonance and layers of accreted history (and shit, apparently) are no match for Notre Dame de Paris. The latter has been described without a hint of irony by various commentators, from the far right to the centre of the political spectrum, as a symbol of "Western Civilisation", as if that term was free of any negative historical connotations. Few of these enthusiasts have focused on the cathedral's emblematic role as a place of refuge, despite Victor Hugo's best efforts on that score, presumably because asylum remains a touchy subject, not least in view of the same commentators robust insistence that dragging the dishevelled Assange out of his bolt-hole was entirely right and proper. The substantive connection between these two lieux de mémoire is, of course, the concept of sanctuary.

Though it has come to mean a place of safety, often for endangered plants or animals (such as "a cracking owl sanctuary"), it was originally a privileged piece of land where secular law did not apply. This didn't mean it was anarchic, but that ecclesiastical law and traditions dating back to Roman practice took precedence. In other words, the concept of sanctuary was itself a site of contest between church and state and could be seen as emblematic of a wider struggle over the ownership and control of land (similarly, "liberties", in the sense of areas enjoying commercial or social privileges, marked the contest between crown and bourgeois). The topic of land ownership is once more in the news with a report that half of England is owned by less than 1% of the population. This sort of eye-catching statistic is a reliable news filler both because it functions as an emblem of inequality and because it rarely changes. We can safely rediscover it every decade. However, that immutability has little to do with the persistence of inequality and owes more to the nature of land as a store of wealth.

The high concentration of land ownership in the UK dates from late Tudor times. Though the dissolution of the monasteries initially broadened ownership in the form of the "landed gentry", the emergence of an agrarian capitalism committed to "improvement", which was memorably delineated in Ellen Meiksins Wood's The Origins of Capitalism, soon created a dynamic towards consolidation that would persist across centuries. Land was highly productive relative to other stores of wealth, it was increasingly tradable and rents were set by market forces rather than feudal convention. The agricultural revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries in Britain stimulated enclosure and the growth of larger farms, along with the dominance of tenancy over owner-occupation, but it also reduced the demand for agricultural labour, thereby helping to grow the larger towns that provided both a livelihood and a market for agricultural produce.

The industrial revolution amplified this process, both by reducing the proportion of the population directly dependent on the land, and thus having an interest in ownership, and by providing a safe store of wealth for the reinvestment of industrial profits that had the added bonus of providing social status through the "rinsing" effect of absorption into the gentry. Though this tendency would later be denigrated as a chief cause of 20th century decline - the bourgeoisie seeking to ape the aristocracy by buying country estates for the sake of prestige - it actually made perfect economic sense. While globalisation would lead to a domestic agricultural depression in the late 19th century, land remained valuable, not least because of the demand for new build homes and factories as suburban railways and arterial roads were built out beyond the still-expanding towns and cities. Though agricultural rents would remain depressed until the 1950s, land ownership remained central to wealth.

One significant change in the composition of ownership over recent decades has been the extent to which the public sector has given way as a significant landowner to corporations. This is not just because of privatisation (notably of utilities such as water and energy) and the relentless trimming of local government responsibilities and funding. It also reflects the recycling of redundant land following deindustrialisation (the London Docklands Development Corporation being a notable early example) and the tendency of corporations to buy land both as a safe asset and as a speculative investment in an era of high property prices, a development that has been fuelled in part by foreign wealth flowing into the UK (Russian oligarchs buying country estates etc). "Land hoarding" does happen, but it is often done by businesses with an eye to wider commercial opportunities rather than just builders looking to ration the supply of land suitable for housing.

The problem of land ownership is not its inequitable distribution across the population. Land reform, in the traditional sense of breaking up large estates and distributing freeholds to small farmers, hasn't been an appropriate solution for all bar the fringe of the UK since the seventeenth century. What reform has taken place saw land taken out of private hands for public benefit, whether in the form of nationalised coal mines, council playing fields or national parks (in 1979 the public sector owned 19% of the land - it now owns under 9%). The problem with the debate over land ownership is that it treats land as a fetish. Consider this from the Guardian report cited above: "The figures show that if the land were distributed evenly across England’s population, each person would have just over half an acre". We're clearly not going to revert to a society based on subsistence farming and recurrent famines, so this sort of statistic in irrelevant. The issue is clearly not the distribution of land itself. The problem of land is one of taxation.

Not only is land privileged through lower taxes on capital gains and dividends, and not only is it easy to avoid inheritance tax on large estates, but many landowners enjoy significant subsidies from the state. Land has become a sanctuary from taxation. While this might conjure up images of tweedy aristocrats posing in front of imposing country piles, it is worth emphasising that the overwhelming majority of the beneficiaries do not wear wellies or own a Labrador. They are more likely to be City bankers or large shareholders in agri-businesses. That homeowners only account for 5% of land ownership should remind us both that developed land is a small fraction of the total and that the vast majority of "property" has nothing to do with bricks and mortar. The solution to the "land problem" is not initiatives to encourage more diverse ownership, or even a reversal of public sector sales, but the introduction of a land value tax (LVT). Likewise, the way to fund the rebuilding of Notre Dame is not to rely on the faux-generosity of individual billionaires but to tax them as a class.