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Monday, 15 October 2018

Varieties of Populism

Populism isn't a form of governance but a style of rhetoric employed when seeking power in a representative political system. It opposes the people to an elite and suggests that the latter are unrepresentative and therefore illegitimate. It is a critique of institutional democracy. Though the term has acquired a pejorative meaning equivalent to demagoguery, it's worth remembering that the most successful populist movements of the last fifty years were those of the insurgent centre. Margaret Thatcher presented herself as the leader of a long-suffering people who sought freedom from an establishment of civil servants and trade unionists, while Tony Blair claimed to lead a "radical centre" that better reflected an emergent "young nation" than a discredited Tory elite and an antiquated socialism. The rhetoric can be sincere - Thatcher remained a populist loose cannon even as she increasingly suffered monarchical delusions - or it can quickly prove to be insincere, as in the case of Blair (though to be fair, the creeping disillusion of New Labour looks tame compared to the speed with which Emmanuel Macron has disappointed the French). The contemporary "populist moment" is less a revival of something thought consigned to the past than the spread of a particular electoral strategy beyond the political centre.

With the centre ground emptied by the intellectual funk of neoliberalism after 2008, attention has focused on the populism of the "extremes", and in particular that of the right. Unfortunately, this is too often confused with what has come to be known as "illiberal democracy", a particular form of authoritarianism in which the regime monopolises power while allowing the formalities of opposition and democratic elections. Illiberal democracy tends to employ the language of right-populism but in a notably paranoid register: it aims to redefine the actual establishment as the tribune of the people against an "other". For example, Viktor Orban presents Hungary as being under threat simultaneously from George Soros, Islam and the EU. What has changed in recent years is that whereas right-populist rhetoric was adopted by dominant parties as they transitioned towards illiberal democracy (recall that both Putin and Orban emerged from the political centre), it is now being adopted by right-wing parties that make no bones about their intention of creating an illiberal democracy, such as in Brazil.

Where right-populism has secured office but the liberal democratic state remains fundamentally unchanged, as in the US, the rhetoric focuses less on the threats to the regime, which are likely to be dismissed as "lame" anyway, than on the celebration of the regime's achievements: "we got a great deal", "we're doing great things". Donald Trump will continue to employ populist rhetoric for as long as he is in the White House, both because he can do no other and because he is still running against the establishment. Where right-populism remains insurgent but not dominant, as in the UK, the rhetoric tends towards hyperbole. This is evident not just among extra-parliamentary populist movements like UKIP, which has started to employ the language of illiberal democracy, but among the established parties of the right who are trying to shore up their electorate or otherwise opportunistically leverage populist rhetoric for positive media coverage (e.g. Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, if you can credit it, claiming that the EU is like the Soviet Union).


Right-populism is based on the presumption of a legitimate demos that is not wholly inclusive (the "decent people" rather than everyone) and the assumption of an irreducible antagonism (the friend/enemy distinction of Carl Schmitt). The "we" of right-populism is essential, hence it usually maps to national identity, ethnicity or social class (e.g. "taxpayers"). There will always be an irreconcilable "them", made up of both enemies within and without, and thus there will always be antagonism. In contrast, left-populism tends to be transactional and material. Where neoliberalism promotes the rewards due to individual effort and qualifies rights with responsibilities, a worldview that is also adopted by right-populists but within essentialist parameters, the left-populist theory of just deserts focuses squarely on collective entitlements: the rights inherent in community, such as housing and a living wage. Left-populism is congruent with democracy and equality, a point made by theorists like Chantal Mouffe, which means that it is a reproach to liberal democracy but not a threat to it. It opposes the people to an oligarchic elite that seeks to curtail those entitlements, including democratic representation, but it differs from right-populism in making the "we" elective and the relationship agonistic - one of struggle - thus holding out the possibility of resolution.

One of the more striking characteristics of the current "populist moment" is that while left-populism has revived the positive language of collective deserts and entitlements in areas such as income and housing, indicating the degree to which neoliberal hegemony has been challenged, contemporary right-populism has moved away from the material towards the metaphysical. Though it still trades in the rhetoric of grievance, it has largely dropped transactional demands in favour of emblematic policies whose material benefits are uncertain. As recently as 2009 in the USA, the Tea Party was demanding that the government did not bail out subprime mortgage-holders and thereby increase taxes and/or national debt. While there was an obvious racial angle to this demand, it was also a rationally material one given the Tea Party's supporters self-identification as put-upon taxpayers. By 2016 the right-populist movement was marching under the banner of "Make America great again", which is no more substantive than a third way campaign slogan. The rich are obviously benefiting from tax cuts and deregulation, but the populism of Donald Trump appeals to voters primarily on the basis of identity rather than material interest.

Going further back, insisting on the maintenance of educational segregation in the US in the 1960s was the defence of a real privilege with tangible benefits. In contrast, advocating lower immigration today is not a policy that will deliver reliable gains, despite talk of tighter labour markets and less pressure on housing and public services, and is likely to have the opposite effect by reducing aggregate demand. You can argue that anti-immigrant policies are proxies for more existential concerns, such as protection against terrorism and crime, or that a sense of community and security is a valuable good in itself, but it is difficult to see contemporary right-populism as anything other than an identity politics increasingly divorced from popular material interests. The same pattern is visible elsewhere, from Hungary to Italy. The people are promised the restoration of national status, perhaps leavened with modest tax cuts and the protection of the benefits of the "decent" (such as pensions), while the rich proceed to loot the public treasury. Beyond the substitution of the rhetoric of national pride for that of personal development, this is still neoliberalism.


Significantly, where the modest material benefits go into reverse, as with Russia's pension reforms, national pride proves to be an inadequate compensation. This suggests that the identity basis of right-populism, its essentialism, may be weaker than liberal critics (who dominate populism studies) have imagined. Rather than the somewhere/nowhere dichotomy and the pathologies of the "white working class", what may ultimately matter are tangible concerns like wages and housing, issues that the political centre has failed to represent except in scolding, moralistic terms (i.e. you have no right to any of this - you must earn it through right behaviour). The weakness of right-populism's material agenda allows appalled liberals to treat it as an irrational, reactionary spasm: a desire for the restoration of an older social order embodied in the "angry, white male". For some, it is a full-blown rejection of the Enlightenment and thus a threat to democracy (this is a non sequitur: popular democracy was abhorred by most Enlightenment thinkers): "They rose up against the demand imposed by modernity – that we use reason to figure things out for ourselves – and replaced it not with the old rules, but with impulse itself, with the vengeance and cruelty and rage that Trump so brilliantly embodies".

As it became clear that right-populism in both the UK and US was going to be incoherent and largely ineffective, a view emerged that such populist eruptions might be a periodic and necessary corrective: "These revolts against remote elites are essential to the vitality, and viability, of modern democracy – even as (and precisely because) they challenge the status quo, destructive though that challenge may be". This has traditionally been a position that liberals have treated sceptically, concerned as they are with the implied threat to pluralism, but it has the advantage of being fundamentally transactional and therefore comprehensible: though crudely expressed, the claims of the people are "legitimate" and amenable to negotiation. One reason for the contemporary prominence of this view is the growing suspicion that the ultimate beneficiaries of the "populist moment" may turn out to be the left rather than the right, precisely because of its material agenda and transactional approach, something that has certainly seemed more likely in the UK since 2017. This view reflects two assumptions: that right-populism is impulsive and emotional, so it is likely to blow over, and that the more pragmatic left-populism can be bought off through negotiation.

The problem is that this interpretation can easily slide towards thinking of right-populism as a necessary purgative, or simply as bad political weather that must be endured until it passes, which then leads to the equanimity displayed by The Wall Street Journal towards the prospect of Jair Bolsonaro becoming the next President of Brazil. Bolsonaro's antagonistic rhetoric towards a variety of "social deviants" sounds like hyperbole, but the risk that he is a right-populist ramp for an illiberal democratic coup is very real. You shouldn't be surprised if a guy who lauds the former military dictatorship ushers in a new military dictatorship, even an informal one that features more suits than fatigues. Left-populism is not a threat to liberal democracy, despite the pearl-clutching claims of centrist commentators who espy a cult or a threat to free-speech. Right-populism, on the other hand, may be a threat because it can serve both as a precursor to, and as a mode of expression for, illiberal democracy. In that light, the liberal media's indulgence of the spectacle of right-populist demagoguery, from Nigel Farage to Tommy Robinson, looks particularly foolish.

Monday, 8 October 2018

The Populist Centre

Theresa May's suggestion in Sunday's Observer that "Labour voters should look afresh at the Conservatives" was clearly an appeal directed not at the electorate but at a minority of Labour MPs whom she hopes will "put country before party" and help pass her Brexit deal in the Commons vote on the EU Withdrawal Agreement. The buttons she pushed, such as antisemitism and deselection, are not ones that most Labour voters particularly care about. The retail offer to voters - protecting jobs, investing in the NHS, making homes affordable - is pabulum and little different to her previous empty promises to the "just about managing". Announcing an end to austerity while proceeding with Universal Credit and other scheduled expenditure cuts isn't going to convince the electorate, even if she throws in a Mama Mia karaoke, but claiming that "Millions of people who have supported Labour all their lives are appalled by what has happened to a once-great party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn" will be music to the ears of a couple of dozen Labour MPs who fear a Labour victory more than continued Tory misrule.


This might have passed without much comment had the Observer not chosen to put a news report on the front page that essentially advertised May's article while once more banging the drum for a centrist party: "It comes amid rumours in Westminster that disgruntled groups of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs could try to form a new party on the centre ground to appeal to voters who regard the Tories as too pro-Brexit and right wing, and dislike the leftwing agenda of Corbyn". No attempt was made to put May's appeal into its actual political context as a scouting operation ahead of the big Brexit push, and the contrary quotes (notably from a disinterred David Blunkett) seemed designed to warn Labour not to desert the centre ground. The ridicule that this prompted on Twitter seems to have touched a nerve among the wider commentariat who proceeded to deflect from both May's and the Observer's motives with a variety of specious claims: that giving a platform to the PM is not partisan but a public service; that the left is incapable of tolerating dissent; and that a Corbyn-led government would mean the end of a free press.

Even professional rune-readers were tempted to focus on the resulting kerfuffle rather than May's transparent objective. For Stephen Bush at the New Statesman, "The choice of publication triggered a row of intra-left beef: the Observer is among the publications the Labour leadership regard with suspicion and irritation due to what they see as their excessive and partisan coverage of the People's Vote campaign." In a later take, he conceded that Brexit might have something to do with it but then spoiled his copy by suggesting May was trying to browbeat Philip Hammond on spending. The outpouring of anti-left hyperbole and the focus on West Wing-style machinations don't just distract from the Brexit angle, which the same people usually insist is paramount, they also distract from the ostensible subject of May's pitch: the political centre ground. Matthew d'Ancona, providing the "sceptical" balance in Monday's Guardian, did nominally address it, but his Liberal Tory judgement that May's initiative is doomed because the Conservatives have been made mad by Brexit also left what he revealing calls "the great wasteland between left and right" curiously undefined.

There are two fundamental approaches to building a centre party. The first is the pick-and-mix strategy that adopts popular policies from either flank. This is the "what works" approach favoured by technocrats (cf. Blair and Macron), though their pragmatism always seems to favour one particular flank over the other. The second approach is to establish a unique position that serves to condemn both flanks. That position is likely to be populist in nature, pitting a notional people against an establishment duopoly (though they decry "populism", the localism of the Liberal Democrats is an example of this). Though contradictory, being simultaneously elitist and anti-elitist, these are actually complementary in practice, hence centre parties usually pursue both to varying degrees (e.g. the SNP emphasises the populist angle, En Marche the technocratic). The dirty secret of centrism is that it tends to be more populist than technocratic, simply because techniques of governance like triangulation are routinely adopted by most parties. Neither approach is propitious in the UK at present. The People's Vote was an attempt to pursue a populist strategy, but it has failed because most voters don't consider Brexit to be their paramount concern. The pick-and-mix strategy is a non-starter because, with Labour still moving left and the Tories increasingly febrile, the shifting sands make it difficult to isolate an equidistant position that will be clear to voters.

The truth is that the centre ground doesn't currently exist as a meaningful political territory in the UK, hence the vagueness of d'Ancona and others who try to describe it. There is no "great wasteland", though there is unquestionably a lot of effort wasted in trying to find it. The breaking of the neoliberal spell after 2008 has led to polarisation and an appetite for more radical social and economic measures. The developing failure of the right's prescriptions - the twin beliefs that austerity and Brexit would lead to prosperity - has started to push the electorate towards the left rather than towards the centre. This was the inevitable result of the post-80s political orthodoxy that accepted the Thatcherite dispensation and the vapid philosophy of the Third Way. The centre is no longer distinguishable from the right, if it ever really was, a point that was made crystal clear by the coalition government of 2010-15. This recent shift to the left among the electorate is less a conversion to radicalism than a rediscovery of dormant sympathies. Voters have simply realised that there is an electoral alternative after all. Naturally, you won't find many political commentators prepared to praise Corbyn for keeping the flame alive all these years.

This revival of the left has been mirrored by a counter-movement in which reactionary forces have consolidated around the Tory party. This is more than a consequence of the electoral collapse of UKIP in 2017. It reflects a realisation by rentiers and other privileged groups that they cannot assume a future Labour government would indulge them, as in the New Labour years. While May will talk about bringing the nation together, her government will continue to promote the politics of division: starving the public sector, being hostile to immigrants and the unemployed, and keeping property prices high. Were she to abandon any of these policies, the Conservative coalition would be at risk of fragmentation. Dissatisfaction over Brexit has all the makings of a final straw for many on the right, so antagonising key electoral blocs doesn't make any sense over the next four years. In the circumstances, the idea that the Tories might tack leftwards in any meaningful way is simply incredible. This is obvious to most people, hence the incredulity at the Observer's disingenuous coverage of May's pitch.


But if the Tories aren't going to occupy the empty space of the political centre does this mean that there is still room for a British Macron, a mix of the technician and the populist, to emerge? The Observer and the right wing of Labour might think so, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Not only is there not a credible clean-skin (that the likes of Gina Miller have been mooted is proof of desperation), but there isn't sufficient dissatisfaction with the established parties and thus the fragmentation of the electorate that would allow a centrist to emerge from a crowded field. Macron led in the first round of the French Presidential election in 2017 with only 24% of the vote. In most years that would have condemned him to third place and elimination. More fundamentally, there is no populist cause other than remain that a centrist political force can leverage this side of Brexit, while post-Brexit it is likely to find itself squeezed by the revived populism of the left and the increasingly chaotic populism of the right. The irony is that populism has undermined centrism not because the one is antipathetic to the other but because centrism has lost its monopoly on populism.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Liverpool Defies the Tories

The chief assumption of the commentariat in advance of the Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool was that Corbyn & co would find themselves on the back foot, fighting off the demand for a People's Vote and continuing accusations of antisemitism. In the event, they finished on the front foot with an offer to support the government in the Commons vote on the Withdrawal Agreement if Theresa May secures "a deal that includes a customs union and no hard border in Ireland, if you protect jobs, people’s rights at work and environmental and consumer standards". Despite the ecstatic welcome given to Keir Starmer's promise that remain remained in play, the People's Vote campaign is now effectively dead. Labour has not been bounced into the promise of a second opportunity to vote remain and the most likely scenario, should it manage to topple the government (still a long shot) and enact a further referendum (which wouldn't necessarily follow), would be a choice between no-deal and a revised deal that fulfilled the criteria laid out this week. In essence, Corbyn has called the remainers bluff by making it clear that the only (if remote) chance of a second referendum with a remain option lies through the election of a Labour government. For some remainers, that will be too high a price to pay.

While Corbyn will never be wholly free of the charge of antisemitism, it should be obvious by now that the accusation cuts little ice with the majority of party members (the demonstrative support for the motion on Palestinian solidarity was telling even if it meant that the interests of Palestinians themselves remained marginalised) and is not a priority for the wider public. In retrospect, the distraction from Labour's substantive policy evolution over the summer has been slight. I don't imagine this will prompt any reflection among the media, many of whom seem to have decided that the next big scare will be Corbyn's "threat" to their free-speech. You can expect this to be picked up at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham next week, though I suspect the major theme will be the trusty old standby of national security: Corbyn (and McDonnell) as the terrorists' friend, the apologist for Russia and Iran, the quisling coward who wouldn't launch ICBMs at Buenos Aires in defence of the Falklands etc. Despite Corbyn's antipathy to violence, we can also expect much pearl-clutching over Labour's plans for various tax bombshells, not to mention the jacquerie of industrial democracy.

Labour's evolving policy platform remains modest by historical standards (and even conservative by recent standards in the case of defence and policing) but it is clearly more in line with pubic opinion than the pro-business, pro-austerity, pro-rich programme that the Conservative Party has found itself defending, almost by default, as its imaginative energies are sapped by the rolling disaster of the Brexit negotiations and the much-delayed but still inevitable leadership challenge. The headline-capturing ideas floated by John McDonnell, such as the Inclusive Ownership Fund that would see workers having voting and dividend rights in their companies, should probably be taken with a pinch of salt at this stage as they are clearly still gestural. They are part of the war of position rather than the war of manoeuvre, to put it in Gramscian terms, the aim of which is to normalise the return of social responsibility to discussions about the workplace. Predictably, liberal commentators who have traditionally espoused pious hopes of just such a thing have been prominent among those quibbling over the practicalities. The free-market right have, to give them credit, correctly identified that this is really a debate about taxation. Their problem is that support for increased taxes on corporate profits and unearned income is "the new common sense".

The likely shape of a Brexit deal has been clear for some time as regards the future trading relationship: it's either Canada or Norway. But neither model would adequately address the issue of Ireland, meaning that any deal will necessarily have some bespoke elements: the "plus". A free-trade agreement is only feasible if Northern Ireland is treated as a separate regulatory jurisdiction. While this does not undermine the "constitutional integrity" of the United Kingdom, as some have fatuously claimed, it would mean a goods border in the Irish Sea and the continued oversight of the ECJ in Northern Ireland. Theresa May's get-out clause for a possible compromise is that she would be willing to accede to this if it were mandated by the Northern Ireland Assembly, but that presumes the cooperation of the DUP. That qualification has been interpreted as giving the DUP a veto on the "backstop" agreed with the EU last December, however it is just as plausible to see it as her attempt to manoeuvre the DUP into a position where they would have to take responsibility for the imposition of a deeply unpopular hard border.


Norway is currently a member of the EU Single Market via the EEA, but not of the EU Customs Union. Nor is it subject to the Common Agricultural Policy or Common Fisheries Policy. A deal that would avoid a hard border in Ireland would require membership of the (or "a") Customs Union at a minimum. Objectively, Labour's six tests can only be passed by a Norway+ deal in which the UK remains in the Customs Union and (with some minor variations) the Single Market. The issue of freedom of movement could be finessed by a strict application of the current rules (e.g. requiring EU citizens to find a job within three months or return home, which would probably necessitate an expanded ID card system), but this would be Brexit-in-name-only (BINO). Critics of this are right to say that we might as well stay in the EU as all we achieve is a paradoxical loss of control and sovereignty, making Brexit self-defeating in its own terms, however it remains the best outcome within the constraints of the 2016 referendum result and the Good Friday Agreement.

Essentially the two options are about the direction of travel after the end of the transition period. Canada+ would provide the platform for future divergence - a point that the likes of Michael Gove have been quite open about. What they haven't explained is whether they expect Northern Ireland's alignment with the EU to alter over time. Keeping that door open will be crucial to the support of the DUP, whose existential cause remains divergence from the Republic. Norway+ would provide a platform for future convergence, which means the door would be open to eventual re-accession. For this reason, remainers would be wise to start supporting rather than berating Labour, but that presumes they're pragmatists. Their track record suggests otherwise. Over the last two years, they have repeatedly played the wrong hand: questioning the legitimacy of the 2016 referendum; prematurely pushing an EEA amendment in the Commons; insisting on a People's Vote on the final deal with no thought as to how one might be brought about. In large part, this is because their campaign has been dominated by those whose day job is undermining Jeremy Corbyn.

Over in the blue corner, Theresa May grimly hooks her arms around the ropes as the blows rain in. The imminent Conservative Party annual conference may not be as awful as last year, but its shrill defiance of both the EU and Labour is unlikely to make attractive viewing for any but Tory loyalists. The Chequers Plan is now little more than a battered placeholder. The Brexiteers are pushing for a minimalist Canada free trade agreement but without any compromises on Northern Ireland, which will once more be solved by "technology". The lure of a no-deal flounce remains strong among the ultras. The pro-EU "rebels" are increasingly distraught that their preferred outcome will essentially be Labour's. Naturally they will balk at that and glumly vote with the government on a Withdrawal Agreement that is likely to be closer to Canada. If May can get the DUP onside (a very big if) then she should win the vote with a  bit to spare, avoiding the need for Chuka Umunna to bail her out by putting "country before party". Labour's hopes of a victory in the meaningful vote that might in turn lead to a vote of no confidence depend on May alienating the DUP, but while the DUP might "rebel" on the first they'd have nothing to gain by supporting the second.

The most likely scenario now is Canada for Great Britain and Norway for Northern Ireland, but this will have to be dressed up in such a way as to make a DUP rebellion difficult. While its core supporters are attracted to a deal that binds it more closely to Britain, reintroduces the border with the Republic and undermines the Good Friday Agreement, there are few votes for such a hard-line stance in Northern Ireland. If she has any sense, May will threaten the DUP with a local referendum on the acceptance of a special regulatory status, thereby bypassing the impasse caused by the suspension of the Stormont Assembly. The price the DUP may demand for their cooperation will be high, perhaps even including May's resignation. One of the themes of the Brexit drama has been the claim that "nothing has changed", both as a defence of the government's chaos and as an analysis of the fundamental balance of power in the negotiations. While nothing changed at Salzburg, and it is unlikely that anything of real substance will emerge from the Tory conference, something did change this week in Liverpool. Labour has defied May to secure a Norway deal in the national interest and thereby jeopardise the unity of the Conservative Party. As sure as eggs are eggs, May will find reason to put party before country.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Sky's the Limit

The news that the US media giant Comcast has beaten 21st Century Fox in an auction for the UK-based broadcaster Sky probably won't prompt much political comment during the conference season, beyond perhaps some cheerful rumination on the eclipse of the Murdoch empire. With Fox simultaneously selling most of its TV and film production assets to the Disney Corporation, the Dirty Digger and his scions will fall back on their newspaper business, though their enhanced liquidity means you can't rule out another buying spree elsewhere. For all the framing of this as a titanic corporate battle, or the final frustration of one of the leading media entrepreneurs of the last 50 years, it should really be seen as a routine piece of business in a sector that is constantly cannibalising and reconfiguring its constituent parts. What is ostensibly driving this latest round of buyouts is the belief that only a handful of very large companies will be able to compete with Amazon and Netflix in a future market centred on the streaming of premium content - i.e. live sport, films and original TV productions. The assumption is that only "global players" will thrive, but this calls into question the future of "national" media, which is politically important.

There are two secular trends discernible in the history of media: a tendency towards consolidation and a profusion of content. The latter is mainly driven either by the emergence of new media, which usually generates novel content, or by the increase in channels available to existing media, which usually spreads existing content more thinly (the "great age of TV" enabled by DVD boxsets and streaming is more about quantity than quality). Both are constant features. Whether new media allows new content producers to enter the market largely depends on whether it lowers the cost of access. TV is an example of an expensive medium, hence early channels emerged out of existing radio corporations, such as CBS and the BBC. The Internet is an inexpensive medium, both for production and broadcast, hence the profusion of content, but it did not take long for the lion's share of online attention to be dominated by both a small number of platforms and traditional content providers. As each wave of new media technology recedes, the now broader media industry consolidates.

Depending on the economic climate, consolidation is contingently justified either as a defensive play (we must get bigger or die in a bearish market) or an offensive play (we must buy market share to quickly expand in a bullish market), but it is clearly a structural feature of a sector that rewards cartelisation and monopoly, hence the persistent need for regulation over media ownership to ensure adequate plurality. Contemporary old media, such as  newspapers and TV, claim that the structural dynamics of Internet publishing, such as network effects and zero marginal costs, are leading to a new and more dangerous form of monopoly in which platforms like Google dominate. This claim of novelty is misleading. The dominance of the BBC in the pre-Internet age was a product of the network effect of the licence fee, while the dominance of Facebook in the US today is nothing compared to that of Hearst in newspapers and radio in the 1920s. In comparison, Google's dominant position in online search has been marked by a broadening of access to independent content, not by a narrowing.


Much of the animus of the modern newspaper industry (and to a certain extent the TV industry as well) towards the likes of Google and Facebook arises from the belief that they are "outsiders" who don't share a journalistic culture and the supposed civic values that this entails (films like Spotlight and The Post are celebrations of an ethical world that would never countenance phone-hacking - no siree). This was particularly evident in the fearful responses to Jeff Bezos's acquisition of The Washington Post in 2013. In the event, the Post has changed little in it's coverage or editorial slant (it's still performatively baiting the President, as if to consciously evoke Watergate, while otherwise toeing the neoliberal line) though it has clearly improved its online presence by leveraging Amazon technology and placing a greater emphasis on consumer analytics. The alien culture that Bezos has introduced to the Post turns out to be just a more ruthless mode of capitalism. Journalistic culture will adapt to this, just as it adapted to the rise of the "yellow press" and tabloids.

Many old media mergers in recent years have been explained as the search for economies of scale in the face of the threat of new media, from the Guardian Media Group acquiring the Observer to Trinity Mirror buying the Express titles. This is the defensive play. In fact, this process of consolidation long predates the appearance of the commercial Internet. For example, the broad media economy in the US was dominated by 50 firms in the early eighties but by only 23 in 1990 (cited in Herman & Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent). The deregulation and relaxation of competition rules in both the US and UK in the 1980s enabled new market entrants, but it also stimulated aggressive buyouts. To narrow this down to the UK press, Murdoch's acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times was the defining move of the era, not the launch of Today, and it produced a more relaxed regulatory environment that would lead to further consolidation and eventually Murdoch's failed bid for outright control of Sky, none of which can be blamed on the impact of the Internet.

This process of consolidation, which has been increasingly international since the 90s, has been paralleled by one of homogenisation. As well as straightforward acquisition and expansion across national boundaries, there has been a tendency for domestic media organisations to increasingly adopt global norms, which largely means American norms. Two examples of this are the growth in generic lifestyle content and entertainment coverage, reflecting the inter-dependence of different media. With newspapers and TV both having absorbed the subject matter and style of magazines in the 80s, it's striking to recall just how little arts and entertainment coverage was provided by daily newspapers and TV news in the 70s. A consequence of this is that old media have been obliged to adopt a more cosmopolitan outlook (pun intended) because so much lifestyle content and entertainment is now international - from avocado toast through Fitbits to the Avengers - reflecting globalised capitalism. This causes tonal problems for intrinsically nationalist media like newspapers, who find themselves oscillating between isolationism (yay, Brexit) and internationalism (yay, Netflix).


What matters in lifestyle and entertainment coverage is not the specific commodities but the way that they are presented, from the giddy listicles of "The best teen films of the 80s" to the archly ironic coverage of high fashion (the complete oeuvre of Hadley Freeman, in other words). This is a distancing from the real world where hard choices are about self-denial not ranking, and where vicarious pleasure is no longer a harmless bit of fun but a reminder that certain things will always be out of reach, like a home of you own. That magazines themselves are losing readers is a paradoxical tribute to the hegemony of the magazine form across other media. While many are prepared to attribute this decline to the impact of the Internet, in reality it would have happened anyway as advances in print production allowed newspapers to provide a more colourful experience and the expansion of daytime TV targeted audiences (notably women and the elderly) that were traditional consumers of magazines. Why buy Cosmopolitan once a month when you can read The Guardian or watch Loose Women every day?

The press's solipsistic coverage of its own industry in the early Internet age - from defensive mergers to the merit of paywalls - gave the impression of an existential struggle, but the reality is that the rate of firm consolidation or title exit over the last twenty years has not been substantially different to the period before the arrival of the World Wide Web. The move of Internet firms such as Amazon and Netflix into programme production has been less transformative than the impact of TV on the Hollywood studio system in the 60s and 70s, or even the deregulation of TV in the 80s and 90s. Social media has not challenged the dominance of traditional media firms in terms of news content or opinion, though it has made visible the long-standing dissatisfaction of media consumers. "Echo chambers" and "filter bubbles" are a myth. Their prominence in the critique favoured by established organisations is a guilty admission of the shift of media since the 60s away from "admass" towards the creation of virtual communities of taste, quite at odds with real communities and far more granular than class formations, for the purposes of commercial targeting.

We can draw two conclusions. First, consolidation is the industry norm and occurs regardless of the emergence of new media. Second, the expansion of content leads to homogenisation even as it claims to service ever more specific demographics. Insofar as there has been a fundamental change over the last twenty years, it has been the increase in cross-border consolidation, not the impact of the Internet. The threats we face in terms of the erosion of media plurality and variety come not from the likes of Amazon and Google but from the structural dynamics of the media industry and the way that these are amplified by globalisation and deregulation. I doubt that either Comcast or Fox was too concerned by Jeremy Corbyn's comments that "change is coming" and that there was a need to "democratise" the media - they certainly don't appear to have priced this risk into their bids - but we may be approaching a fork in the road. We could be facing Brexit-inspired Tory deregulation leading to greater US domination of the UK media (a more worrying development than chlorine-washed chickens), or a Labour government committed to tighter regulation and antipathetic towards foreign ownership. If it happens, the latter will be condemned as censorship, but it will be more in keeping with the attitudes cultivated by a "nationalist" press. One way or another, Comcast's acquisition of Sky probably marks the start of a new era.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Exhausted Metaphors

Seeing Owen Patterson on the platform as the European Research Group launched its report on the Northern Ireland border recalled to mind one of the more striking metaphors of recent years. Asked in 2013 about a badger cull that he had been responsible for as Secretary of State for the Environment, he explained that the cull had failed to meet its targets because "the badgers have moved the goalposts". This was a metaphor both mad and strangely beautiful in its originality. Metaphors have been much in the news of late, with Chuka Umunna criticised for using "call off the dogs" in relation to Labour Party members seeking to hold MPs to account, and Boris Johnson criticised for referring to Muslim women as "letterboxes" and calling Theresa May's commitment to the Northern Ireland backstop a "suicide vest". Umunna's canine comparison probably wasn't as deliberately insulting as some imagine, but it also lacked any hint of irony or self-awareness given the hounding of Jeremy Corbyn. Reducing people to inanimate objects is literally dehumanising, but Johnson's crack about veiled women was at least an attempt at humour, however ill-judged, while he has a point about the potentially fatal nature of the backstop: it must compromise either Brexit or the constitutional integrity of the UK. My own view is that the latter is mostly myth anyway, but that is not a view shared by the DUP and they hold the key to the next act of the Brexit drama.


The optimum moment for the Brexit ultras to challenge Theresa May and force a no-deal "clean break" came and went in the first quarter of this year, once it was clear that she was edging towards maximum alignment as the only strategy that could satisfy the terms of the provisional agreement made with the EU last December. While the recent Chequers statement remains a dog's dinner that is unacceptable to the EU27 in its current form, it was a public statement that maximum alignment is now the only game in town. The resignations of David Davis, Steve Baker and Boris Johnson proved to be less the trigger for an insurgency and more the concession of temporary defeat. This doesn't mean that May is now secure as Prime Minister. There is a chance that she will be defeated in the Commons on the "meaningful vote" on the withdrawal terms, which could lead to a vote of no confidence and an early general election, and even if she survives that first vote there is a strong chance that the Conservative Party will push for a "true-beleaver" thereafter to manage the negotiation of the future trading relationship during the transition period. She remains terminally damaged by the 2017 general election and few expect her to lead the party into another.

That the ultras passed up the opportunity to challenge May earlier this year proved that they, like the Tory remainer "rebels", are all bark and no bite. This means that the fate of Brexit and the government will be decided by the coming Commons vote on the withdrawal terms, assuming May manages to steer the ship into port. The encouraging words from Michel Barnier suggest this is almost certain to happen, though what floats in on the tide may not look particularly seaworthy. Much of the "deal" will remain deliberately opaque, particularly with regard to the future trading relationship and the role of the ECJ, but the substantial issues will be clear enough, simply because the EU27 will insist on clarity around its red lines, notably Ireland. This will probably mean a de facto and indeterminate continuation of the customs union and some elements of the single market in order to avoid a hard border. It will be sold by May as "Canada plus" - the UK's position as a rule-taker and ancillary to the EU dressed up as a free trade agreement between equal powers - but it will be interpreted as Brexit in name only by many on both sides of the argument.

The ultras will probably split (they already appear to be at loggerheads over attempts to firm up their counter-proposals). The "pragmatists", probably led by Gove within the government, will insist that the deal is a glass-half-full and that the potential for future divergence has been secured. They will attract enough ultras to reduce a Tory rebellion to a hardcore, which may be as few as single figures if the threat of a general election defeat remains likely. The chance of remainers such as Soubry and Grieve finding reason to oppose the government is negligible. For all the talk of the epoch-defining nature of the vote, self-preservation will be uppermost in many minds. The DUP is the most volatile element in the government's Commons majority, and the one bloc of votes that could trigger a general election through a no confidence motion, but they will find it difficult to publicly oppose a deal that avoids a hard border. That said, they have a long tradition of finding obscure reasons to thwart Number 10 and their game-plan all along has been to encourage a breakdown in negotiations so that a hard border could be blamed on the EU. Their absence from this week's ERG press conference simply indicates that they are holding their cards close to their collective chest.


Labour will oppose the deal, both because it's likely to be a hot mess and in order to topple the government, but some on the right of the party may be unable to resist the temptation to put "country before party" and so support May, arguing that half a loaf (and the distant prospect of reaccession) is better than none. That Labour will probably be offering a larger portion of the same loaf will be dismissed by reference to the bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, and thus an implicit claim that Labour under Corbyn cannot win a general election. This will no doubt convince the centrist commentariat but will go down like a bucket of cold sick among the vast majority of Labour Party members, including those on the right. For this reason there will probably only be a handful of rebels, including those whose days in the party are already numbered, such as Umunna, and eccentrics like Kate Hoey (who will probably follow the DUP line) and Frank Field (who may have been formally expelled by then anyway). There isn't going to be a British En Marche but nor is there going to be a new National Labour.

It is impossible to predict the number of rebels, but my guess is that they will be small on either side. If Labour commits to a more formal relationship, such as membership of the customs union or the EEA, perhaps with the proviso of a second referendum to ratify a revised deal, then this could reduce the numbers even further. The prospect of a defeat for the government would then depend on whether any Tory remainers would vote against the whip. History suggests that only Ken Clarke would have the guts to do so, in which case the vote will largely follow party lines and, assuming she keeps the DUP onside, May will have achieved her immediate goal. However, this won't tighten her grip on the premiership. Instead she will be more vulnerable to a leadership challenge as the new priority for leavers will be to ensure there is one of their own in Number 10 ahead of the final negotiations on trade. Boris Johnson's rhetorical focus on trade deals has been transparent all along, though I think he has pissed-off too many Conservative MPs to be sure of making the final shortlist for a vote of the membership.

Assuming they don't bottle out, the handful of Labour "rebels" around Umunna will lose the whip. I doubt they'll join the Conservative Party, though there will be plenty of encouragement from media centrists talking up the need for a government of "national unity" (or even "all the talents", God help us) as we face the transition. More likely is that they will form a groupuscule in Parliament that will seek an electoral accommodation with the LibDems (the first time as tragedy etc). Hoey, like Field, would probably sit as an independent. None will survive the next general election. I also doubt there will be any Tory MPs defecting to UKIP, not just because of that party's move to the far-right under Gerald Batten, but because of their desire to stay within the Conservative fold and exert maximum pressure for divergence. Given the deal's ambiguity, there will be scope for a hardening of the terms between March 2019 and December 2020. With Johnson and Davis busted flushes, Michael Gove will seek to place himself at the head of the ultras, though there will be resistance to this given his track-record. There will also be friendly articles in The Times and Daily Mail suggesting that Gove's treachery towards Johnson in 2016 has proven to be justified by subsequent events.


The choice of metaphors tells us something about the speaker. Johnson's are colourful, excessive and casually brutal. The Northern Ireland backstop is less a suicide vest than an admission that the Good Friday Agreement moved the constitutional goalposts (something that the anti-agreement Gove has never been shy about admitting). The defence of Umunna by his supporters, that "call off the dogs" is a figure of speech devoid of any animus, is an inadvertent admission that he lacks imagination and originality. Of course, it would be the same even if he deliberately set out to insult ordinary party members. His recourse to shrill hyperbole - calling the Labour Party "institutionally racist", for example - suggests a man who is less than careful in his choice of language, though this won't stop the Orwell-botherers in the press rooting for him. One dimension of the gradual shift in public sentiment over the last couple of years has been the exasperation with tired and empty language, from "Brexit means Brexit" to "strong and stable". Though the public harbours doubts about both Corbyn and McDonnell, one thing they seem to like is their plain-speaking. After a quarter century of the messianism and PR-speak of Blair and Cameron, perhaps there is nostalgia for the "dull and uninspiring" rhetoric of the Major and Smith years.