Saturday, 30 November 2019


The not guilty verdict in the manslaughter trial of David Duckenfield, the senior police officer in charge at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989, is an example of impunity. After 27 years, nobody has faced criminal sanction for the avoidable deaths of 96 people. The trial was disfigured by the obvious sympathy of the judge for the accused and by the defence's revival of slurs against the victims that had been definitively rejected at the inquest trial in 2016. This wasn't merely bias, but a performance of contempt for those victims. Contempt is characteristic of impunity. It's not simply about letting someone off the hook. If an individual or group receives preferential treatment, then necessarily someone else must suffer a relative loss or deliberate disregard. It isn't a victimless crime, which is why examples of impunity offend our sense of natural justice. Well, that's the theory. In practice, we regularly collude in the support of impunity, and the reason we do so is that we are only too happy to side with the beneficiaries and think ill of the disregarded.

Some of this is due to propaganda, such as the notorious campaign run by the Sun newspaper in the aftermath of Hillsborough, and some of it is simply the tendency to side with the establishment and mistrust "troublemakers". But we're regularly told that we live in an era of scepticism in the face of "fake news" and widespread mistrust of that establishment. Logically, the tolerance of impunity in public life should have declined, but it appears to have increased, particularly since 2008 and the spectacle of bankers being first bailed-out and then excused. As Andy Beckett has noted, the current general election campaign has been forward-looking, with the parties' emphasis on the reinvigoration of the nation post-Brexit or the transformation of our economy in the face of a looming climate emergency, but the corollary has been a relative lack of debate about the Conservative Party's record of incompetence and sheer malice over the last decade. There has certainly been criticism of austerity, but its chief architects are not about to apologise for it and few people are pressing the case that they should.

The liberal media is attuned to this increase in impunity, but too often it couches its analysis in the conservative language of virtue. This from John Naughton is typical: "On reflection, it occurs to me that the fundamental problem underpinning all this is impunity — i.e. the discovery that there are agents in liberal democracies which are able to behave badly without having to worry about the consequences. We saw this with the banks in the 2008 crisis, and we're seeing it now with political activists, foreign actors and tech companies." Naughton correctly points the finger of blame at "the neoliberal Kool Aid which privileges markets", though there is an obvious omission in his charge-sheet where you'd expect to find the neoconservative adventure of the Iraq War, but while the market may have reduced formal consequentiality it doesn't explain the weakness of informal sanctions and rebuke, i.e. the court of public opinion. Blair survived criticism over Iraq to win a majority in 2005. Today we have a Prime Minister who was twice sacked for lying during his career but has continued to routinely lie. That kind of impunity requires the connivance of a lot of people.

Some have tried to explain this by a new "big lie" theory: that if people trust you on one key issue, such as the promise to "deliver Brexit", then they will excuse your serial lying and misbehaviour on other matters. But this hardly explains why Johnson enjoyed relative impunity for his misdeeds well before the day he wrote his two letters advocating and rejecting continued membership of the EU. Jonathan Freedland, who makes this big lie claim, draws a distinction between professionals and amateurs: "The implication is that while the Westminster class, journalists and rival politicians, are focused on the literal truth – accurate stats, misleading claims – voters are looking for something different from a politician. Do you mean what you say and, crucially, will you make good on it?" The idea that the politico-media class cares more about literal truth than the general population would be difficult to credit at the best of times but it's particularly hard to swallow in the midst of an election campaign marked by so many misrepresentations, not least by the BBC.

As usual with Freedland, what appears like a damning critique of Johnson turns out to be largely a dismissal of Corbyn. This is not just a reflection of his own distaste. It is a tenet of centrism that both "extremes" are as bad as each other, but that in turn means that should one pole of politics degrade, there will be a tendency to generalise the problem and damn the other pole in similar terms. In other words, the intellectual decline of the Tory party, and the increasing evidence of its incompetence, has led to an insistence that Labour must be equally bereft of ideas and capability. This takes the form of dismissing their proposals as either antiquated or implausible and belittling their frontbench as either naive or talentless (with the obvious centrist exceptions, such as Keir Starmer). Likewise, the claim that Labour has become "infected" by antisemitism under Corbyn's leadership is in part a compensation for the all too evident moral corruption of the Conservative Party since 2010. If one has promoted a hostile environment for Afro-Caribbeans, surely it's plausible that the other has promoted a hostile environment for Jews?

The cynicism of Freedland is corrosive. It suggests that truth cannot succeed against the big lie and that impunity will be extended to the liar so long as the lie is maintained. In the context of the general election campaign, this suggests that Freedland thinks the cause of remain is lost: the Liberal Democrats are a busted flush and he will never support Labour. Presumably he envisages a slow disillusionment among the wider population as reality gradually undermines the big lie of Brexit's sunlit uplands. But what the case of the Hillsborough 96 tells us is that the truth emerges quickly. The big lie - that the fans forced the Leppings Lane gate - simply couldn't survive proper investigation and was rejected as early as the Taylor report in 1989. The problem was convincing the government to pursue criminal charges, a struggle that lasted decades. I imagine this week's verdict will have made the hearts of the Grenfell campaigners sink a little, though they must already be fearing the worst given how their case has been handled to date.

Impunity is privilege but it also depends on connivance. Duckenfield and the South Yorkshire Police thought they could get away with avoiding culpability and smearing the Liverpool fans not only because of their longstanding institutional privilege but because they believed they had the unstinting support of the government following the Miners' Strike. The apparent rise in impunity in public life over the years reflects widening inequality and the associated rise in relative privilege. Boris Johnson is an extreme example of entitlement, but he is wholly representative of his class, as his own father's recent patronising comments have made clear. His indulgence by most of the media is simple connivance, and the idea that he would be brought to book by Andrew Neil is wishful thinking (Neil's loaded question technique prompts evasion in those who value honesty but it's less effective if the interviewee is happy to lie). His refusal to submit to a grilling is not cowardice alone but the display of his privilege. That the BBC has thrown in the towel today shows that his expectation of deference was well-founded.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Do Manifestos Matter?

Manifestos can sway voters in a general election, but this tends to be the result of an emblematic proposal that captures the public imagination or a more general sense that a party is either bereft of ideas or perhaps too full of them. Labour's commitment to the NHS in 1945 or May's misstep in 2017 over social care would be positive and negative examples of the former, while the Tories' (forgettable) offering in 1997 or Labour's (actually quite fascinating) 1983 manifesto are examples of the latter. One of the more dreary features of the post-Thatcher political landscape was the shift in the format and style of manifestos away from the earnest pamphlet of old to the glossy, vacuous corporate brochure, which held sway until 2015. This was both performative neoliberalism, with its recasting of voters as shareholders in UK Plc, and a conscious attempt to narrow the window of the possible to the managerial and the gestural: lots of abstract nouns and pictures of relatable people.

Labour's 2017 iteration broke with this pattern and attempted to reconnect with the older tradition of substantive argument, though its impact was less to do with any specific proposals and more to do with a general sense that a more activist state was once more conceivable. The 2019 version has built on this, but I doubt it will tip the balance in next month's vote despite the high hopes of party members. It is an impressive offer, both in terms of its desired outcomes and the rigour of its argument, but for the vast majority of voters it will be distilled down to "free broadband" (a great idea to some, a sign of madness to others) and a generalised sense of "spend more" (ditto). The chief lesson of 2017 is that a manifesto matters most when it shows that a party has misjudged the popular mood, as the Conservatives did with the "dementia tax". Ironically this was the same lesson that the parties learnt after the 1980s, which was what led to the creeping blandness. I don't think we'll see a repeat of this shift in the coming years.

The Tories clearly have no intention of repeating their 2017 mistake so their manifesto, launched today, is little more than "Get Brexit done" backed up by pledges to not raise taxes while promising to invest a little more in public services. This betrays a severe lack of imagination, but their current strategy as a party depends on making a fetish out of Brexit and having the consequential sunlit uplands monopolise all dreams of the future. In terms of an electoral coalition, the plan is to absorb both the populist right and elements of the traditionalist left while hanging on to their core of well-off voters. This is probably a temporary manoeuvre, not least because that coalition is too contradictory to persist. The plan will be to tack back towards a more orthodox centre-right position post-election, but circumstances may leave the party stranded further out on the right unless it can win a large enough majority to discount potential rebels such as the ERG as trade talks with the EU grind on.

The Conservatives haven't written off remainers who would traditionally have voted for them, but the party is making little effort to hang on to this bloc for now, hence the routine "spending bombshell" attacks on Labour have been undermined by fiscal giveaways and vagueness over spending plans intended to reassure leavers concerned about the NHS, while the nods towards traditional liberal concerns have been replaced by increasingly reactionary noises around crime and national security. The electoral coalition built by Cameron - fiscally conservative and socially liberal - is broken, but it's still not clear whether the defenestration of the likes of Hammond, Gauke and Grieve represents a lasting divide on the right or whether they will drift back into the fold once the smoke clears. The best chance of a rapprochement happening might be through a second referendum decisively settling matters, which ironically means a Labour victory. If Johnson wins the election, Brexit will continue to warp politics for at least a decade or more.

Since the victory of the Orange Bookers, the Liberal Democrat's strategy has been to replace the Tories on the centre right, which explains their continuing lack of contrition over the coalition years. As Johnson tacks to the nationalist right, they aim to attract not only remainers but centre-right conservatives who want minimal change to their comfortable lives, hence the demonisation of Corbyn, the commitment to budget surpluses and the enthusiasm for Trident. The unwillingness to stand aside for strongly pro-EU Labour candidates indicates that taking seats from the Tories matters more than achieving a Commons majority for a second referendum. Despite the indulgence of the liberal media, Jo Swinson has proved to be far less popular than her supporters anticipated, but this has little to do with her rebarbative HR manager persona. As the BBC Question Time special on Friday proved, many voters are still disgusted by the coalition and now doubly offended by the arrogance of "Bollocks to Brexit". That vote in the European Parliament election looks less and less representative as each day passes.

The Liberal Democrats' current electoral strategy is predicated on winning back seats lost to the Tories in 2015, though this may prove a struggle in leave-supporting areas such as the South West. The "remain alliance" with the Greens and Plaid Cymru is intended to maximise "progressive" votes in these target areas, though there are rumours that it has gone down like a cup of cold sick among the activists who get the vote out. The high profile candidacies in metropolitan seats like Kensington and the Cities of London and Westminster look superficially like loss-leaders intended to achieve national media prominence. However, given that the Liberal Democrats are actively courting conservative remainers and presenting themselves implicitly as the continuity Cameron and Osborne candidates, they could sneak through the middle in some constituencies in the capital. More likely, they will hinder Labour and deliver seats like Putney and Battersea to the Tories.

The outcome of the 2019 general election has probably been determined by two events over the last week or so. The first was the decision of Nigel Farage to let the Tories off the hook in Conservative held seats. Many of the votes the Tories will gain are in constituencies they were always likely to hold, but this shift will probably prove crucial in some marginals. In other words, Labour's hope of taking seats directly from the Tories through a split leave vote has evaporated. In its own seats, Labour must hope that the Brexit Party is more effective in taking votes from the Conservatives by appealing to hardcore leavers, but the fear is that it becomes a protest vote for Labour leavers who would otherwise not vote for the Tories. That said, Farage's contribution to the election result looks like it will be no more significant than it was in 2015. The flaw in the Brexit Party's strategy, assuming it was serious about holding the balance of power, was that it was always more likely to win seats by directly challenging the Tories in heavily pro-leave areas in the South, as UKIP successfully did in Clacton.

The second event is the decline of the Liberal Democrats, which was predictable. The party has been on a downward trend in opinion polls since the beginning of October, when it peaked at 21%, which means it predates the decision to call the election. The party had been around the 20% mark since June, having bumped along at nearer 10% in the first quarter of the year before rising in the aftermath of the second extension of the Article 50 process. The decline that started in early October coincided with the widespread expectation that a general election would be called as the prospect of the government getting a deal approved in time to meet the deadline of the end of the month started to recede. Nothing that the Liberal Democrats subsequently did managed to arrest that decline, and on current trend it looks like the party will be back to 10% by the 12th of December. The clear beneficiary of this fall, and a similarly predictable decline in support for the Green Party, has been Labour. The manifesto may well have aided this among the politically-engaged, but the bigger factor for most voters has simply been the realisation that it's a two horse race. The problem for Labour is that while the Brexit Party has all but evaporated as a threat to the Tories, the Liberal Democrats remain likely to split the anti-Tory vote across the country.

What this means is that while Labour will probably narrow the gap, the Tories are still on course to gain the largest share of the vote and probably a majority in seats. There is no sign yet of their support dropping back into the danger territory below 40%. A more rapid collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote, back to the sub-8% levels seen in the last two elections, would help Labour close the gap, however a bigger effect in terms of seats won or lost could arise if the strong support for the Conservatives indicated in opinion polls is undermined by lower turnout on the day. Leave won in 2016 because it motivated disaffected electors. Some of those will be supporting the Tories now, but they are a soft bloc that could shift to abstention if the party mishandles the campaign. Some may be happy to voice support in opinion polls as a way of indicating their support for leave, but might balk at actually electing a Tory MP. This is the corollary of left-of-centre voters supporting the Lib Dems over Spring and Summer as a way of performing their commitment to remain.

My guess is that the result will be closer to 2017 than the polls currently suggest, but that the Tories will do marginally better and Labour marginally worse than two years ago. This will deliver a modest Conservative majority in the Commons which will be sufficient to see the UK exit the European Union at the end of January. The banter rules mean that popular support for Brexit will then steadily decline over the year as the actual consequences in terms of trade and jobs start to become clear. Meanwhile, the clamour for Jeremy Corbyn's resignation among the usual suspects will be deafening, but the result will in no way justify the claim that with Jess Phillips in charge the party would have romped home. The bottom line is that Labour has won the battle of the manifestos, but the Tories don't care. They reckon that the war will be won by the battle of the slogans and they may well be right. It's Time for Real Change will chime with many, but Get Brexit Done has the benefit of immediacy and for many of its supporters appears to be a more tangible change than free broadband or more council houses. Naturally I hope I'm wrong.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Scaring Capitalists

Aditya Chakrabortty has built a reputation on the left as one of the good guys in the media for his support of the Corbynite adventure of the Labour Party and his pro-social reporting and commentary, but he is all-too typical of his milieu in that he subscribes to an essentially liberal interpretation of the nature of capital. His recent claim that "The threat of the Soviet bloc forced western democracies to acknowledge the rights of workers and poor people" is typical of this. It isn't a new idea - similar claims have been made by political commentators and historians for decades - but it is worth wondering why the language in which it is couched has become more hyperbolic. Where once it was presented as the competition of capitalism and communism for the affections of labour, now we are expected to believe that capital in the short twentieth century was intimidated, like a shopkeeper paying protection money to the Mafia.

This is how Chakrabortty puts it: "The very presence of a powerful rival ideology frightened capitalists into sharing their returns with workers and the rest of the society, in higher wages, more welfare spending and greater public investment." Related to this claim is the idea that the victory of capitalism over communism was in the balance until the final hour: "From the very outset, November 1989 was framed as the moment when capitalism could stop battling for survival and finally renew itself". The obvious problem with this is that capitalist behaviour did not suddenly change with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The shift from support of the postwar economic and social consensus to a more antagonistic attitude towards labour occurred in the mid-70s, while government policies that explicitly rejected sharing returns with workers were enacted from 1979 onwards with first the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and then Ronald Reagan in the US.

In reality, the gains of labour in the postwar years were down to the combination of the necessary reconstruction of the social infrastructure of shattered nations, the redeployment of wartime industrial capacity towards profitable production, and the relative scarcity of both skilled and unskilled labour. The purpose of the NHS, slum clearance and the expansion of education was not to dissuade voters from drifting towards a tiny Communist Party of Great Britain but to improve the calibre of labour for the benefit of capital. Similar considerations underpinned the social reforms enacted by the Liberal government between 1906 and 1914. Asquith and Lloyd George were not preempting the siren call of communism to British workers but trying to beat off the Labour Party. Likewise, the capitalist turn towards the disciplining of labour in the mid-70s arose from a crisis of profitability - as the postwar reconstruction phase ran out of steam and the simultaneous expansion of global production capacity drove down prices - not from a reduction in the perceived threat emanating from Moscow.

In supporting his case for the role of communism as a goad to capitalism, Chakrabortty makes much of the coincidence of revolution in Russia and the enactment of pro-social reforms across Western nations: "The starkest example is the eight-hour working day. Demanded for more than a century by socialists such as Robert Owen, it had been the rallying cry of the annual May Day demonstrations organised since 1890 – yet it took the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 and the concurrent unrest of workers across Europe to make it law within months in France, Germany and Portugal." As with the introduction of universal male suffrage, this was the product of a political campaign that had run for decades - in the UK's case since the Peterloo massacre and the Tolpuddle Martyrs a century earlier. Chakrabortty acknowledges this history and the campaign's inexorable rise to political prominence but seems unwilling to conclude that reform was therefore inevitable.

The reason why so many progressive reforms were enacted within months of October 1917 was the end of the First World War in 1918, not the storming of the Winter Palace. War was the common factor, triggering both revolution in Russia and progressive reform elsewhere. Among the political establishments of combatant nations there was both a feeling of moral obligation and a fear of an armed working class (a fear realised by extensive violence in Germany). While you can't prove a counter-factual, it is unlikely that in the absence of the Bolshevik takeover countries such as France and Germany would have resisted reform to the statutory working day. It is also important to remember that in 1918 most foreign observers of Russia thought that the "Reds" would be defeated by the "Whites", not least because of armed intervention by the allied powers. Until 1920, many of those observers were more concerned about the potential contagion represented by the anarchist forces of Nestor Makhno.

The fear of communism certainly grew during the 1920s, particularly as the Comintern became more prominent and various countries experienced revolutions and civil strife in the wake of the Great War, but the response of capitalists tended more towards confrontation and suppression rather than accommodation, let alone a strategy of generosity towards labour. For example, the UK General Strike in 1926 was triggered by government attempts to reduce wages and worsen working conditions in the mining industry, an approach that actually boosted support for the CPGB. You could argue that British capital only arrived at a strategy of generosity after 1945, but that undermines the claim that 1917 was pivotal. The USSR was certainly at the peak of its influence following the Second World War but you won't find a correlation between the threat of communist parties in Western Europe and pro-social reform. The most extensive investment in the welfare state came in countries, such as the UK and Sweden, where the communists played a distant second fiddle to long-established social democrats. In countries with powerful communist movements, such as France and Italy, the development of the welfare state was much patchier in the 40s and 50s.

Chakrabortty imagines capital as possessing a will - at times dynamic, at times destructive - but little self-control: "Countervailing forces made capitalism not only more bearable for those living under it but also more likely to survive. Without them, the system loses both consent and even the will to carry on. The banking crash, Brexit, the impending climate catastrophe – all should serve as distress signals for keen-eared capitalists, yet the answer to each is to serve up more of the same: more finance, more slash-and-burn, more tokenism around carrier bags." That capitalism seems incapable of responding to these "distress signals" doesn't appear to give Chakrabortty pause for thought. Holding out for a more responsible capitalism is no less delusional than the 80s belief that the market would provide or the 90s conviction that the state could address its negative externalities by asking financiers to pay a little more tax.

This is an example of the liberal tendency to treat capitalism as a rational actor with bad habits, which is the perspective of centrists like Will Hutton. To imagine that British capitalism consciously and collectively decided to thwart communism through welfarism is a version of the anthropomorphic fallacy. Though it is composed of individuals who each make what they consider to be rational choices, capitalism is an emergent system in which collective action arises spontaneously. It could no more "decide" to improve workers' pay in order to fend off the wiles of communism than it could decide to stop polluting. What aggregate rationality exists is the result of society's attempts to control capitalism -  in other words, politics - but this can be ineffective when it imagines that capitalists will respond to social as much as financial incentives: that we can appeal to their collective conscience or pragmatic calculation.

This belief in capitalist rationality has underpinned much of the liberal angst over Brexit. Why did a capitalist class that was so dominant in the successful "In" referendum of 1975 put up such a poor show in 2016? It wasn't out-thought by Dominic Cummings and Arron Banks, it simply didn't turn up. The reason is that in the mid-70s British capital still identified with what David Edgerton has referred to as a "national capitalism", but 40 years of neoliberalism has since created a capitalist class that is fragmented in it politics and where the balance of power now lies between a globalised finance sector that is disinterested in domestic industry, a manufacturing sector dominated by foreign multinationals that can always relocate elsewhere, and a rentier class for whom deregulation and exploitation have substituted for investment in productive capacity. British capital is split not just between leave and remain but between the interested and the disinterested, and the truth is that most capitalists now fall into the latter category.

If, as the headline to Chakrabortty's article puts it, "The task of politics today is to scare the capitalists as much as communism did", then nothing short of comprehensive expropriation is likely to do it, and even that will probably be ineffective with the many finance and offshore capitalists who can happily go into exile. In practice, Labour's plans to nationalise water, rail and now broadband are actually quite cunning in that they target those forms of capital that cannot take flight, but for all the real benefits they may bring to everyone in terms of better services and lower costs, they will do little to boost wages or conditions for the majority of working people. Ultimately, British socialists have to answer a simple question, and one that has become ever more pressing in the face of a growing climate catastrophe: If capitalism cannot be saved from itself, what should be put in its place?

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Going Nowhere Slowly

We're a third of the way through the league season and Arsenal are off to their worst start since 2014-15, when we also had 17 points after 12 games. However, on that occasion we had a goal difference of +5, rather than -1, and finished the season in third place (with a goal difference of +35) after winning 28 and 30 points in the second and final thirds. It's not impossible, but the goal tally suggests we'll struggle to repeat that kind of improvement this season, which in turn means we're looking at finishing outside the top four and must once more put all our Champions League eggs in the basket that is the Europa League. Though we're almost certain to qualify for the knockout rounds, there's a good chance we'll eventually have to face either Unai Emery's old club Sevilla or Manchester United on one of their better days in a tie that will probably be decided by a calamitous own-goal. As you can see, I'm not particularly optimistic at the moment.

2018-19 was a transitional season, but the signs of evolution or progress were difficult to discern. We got off to a gallop, though the first third of the season clearly owed something to good fortune and perhaps a "new broom" bounce, but though the final third wasn't terrible when viewed over 13 games, the falling-off in the last 7 games (7 points from a possible 21), which condemned us to fifth in the table, was very disappointing and obviously not helped by the nightmare that was the Europa League final in Baku. The (apparently) good business conducted in the summer led to renewed optimism at the start of this season, but the results and performances have quickly undermined any lingering hopes for a top four finish, let alone a title challenge. For most fans, the frustration is that there is no better sense after 50 games as to what Emery's strategy is, and growing disquiet at signs that the team are as confused as we are.

Positive statements by popular players such as Hector Bellerin notwithstanding, the reports of doubts by the likes of Aubameyang and Torreira, as well as the obvious disaffection of Xhaka, suggest that while Emery hasn't lost the dressing-room he is on the way to doing so. Subsequent events, most obviously the withdrawal of the captaincy, make it likely that there will be a parting of the ways with the Swiss international, and I think most fans would welcome this, on purely square peg grounds, even if they regret the barracking he received from a minority. Xhaka pretty much burned his boats by his unwillingness to properly apologise for his reaction to the crowd's jeers, but I also get the sense that he may have thought his future at the club was in jeopardy anyway. In other words, he probably has little confidence that Emery will turn things around and thus anticipated becoming a fall-guy once the manager went.

What we've experienced under Emery is no discernible improvement in the team's performance and some sign that it has lost its sense of identity as the manager has preferred to tailor his tactics to countering the opposition rather than imposing a style. Say what you want about the gradual decline under Wenger, Arsenal were never anything other than recognisably Arsenal during his tenure. For many critics that was the problem - an over-investment in possession, an under-investment in defending, a lack of a plan B - but at least it was an identity, with all its charms and flaws. Emery's chopping and changing in formations and personnel (his heavy rotation was notorious at Valencia) looks incoherent and his insistence on the need for flexibility and tactical awareness will continue to fall on deaf ears if the results are no better than they were under late-period Arsene. Most damagingly, Emery has taken to dwelling on the team's mentality, which suggests (as it increasingly did with Wenger) an unwillingness to address the suitability of the tactics.

The persistence of failings familiar from the late-Wenger years - poor away performances, dropped points at home against mid-table teams, comical defensive lapses - has led some fans to assume that the problems are systemic, ultimately reflecting a conservative, unambitious owner and a club hierarchy more concerned with PR than points. But the amount of change off the field, notably the departures of Gazidis and Mislintat and the rise to dominance of Sanllehi and now Edu, suggests that if anything the club has experienced a rapid regime change whose aim is clearly transformative. Precisely what that aim is remains unclear, but the summer purchases and the willingness to promote youth (if only in the cups) do suggest a desire for a more vibrant, attacking focus. The problem remains a lack of creativity in midfield, which encourages opponents to press high and leaves our forwards frustrated. You can win a cup with a sub-par midfield and a bit of luck, but you're unlikely to get far in a league campaign that lasts 38 games.

The enigma that is Mesut Ozil continues to divide fans, with some now loudly singing his name purely as an implied criticism of Emery (who seems to have first frozen him out and then changed his mind) while others hope that the German will take up an MSL offer in January, leave on good terms and free up some wages for a fresh acquisition. My own guess is that the hokey-cokey means the US move is off in January and that he won't leave before the summer. His reintegration into the team depends on establishing a proper midfield platform to allow him to roam as a number 10. The role is out of fashion, but Arsenal could profit by swimming against the tide given that he remains world class in that position. That would mean playing a back four, with Torreira allowed to play in his best position in front of the defence and Guendouzi paired with a more robust player than Ceballos (who should really be a backup for Ozil) in the middle of the park. It's a regressive move in many ways, more 4-4-2 than Emery's preferred 4-3-3, but it might be enough to provide the stability for a decent run over the remaining two-thirds of the season pending a major rethink in the summer.

A four in midfield would mean a front two permed from Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe (with Martinelli in reserve). For all their personal chemistry, I think the first two would be the least effective partnership as they both need to play centrally. Pepe brings something different. In defence, both Luiz and Sokratis are ultimately stopgaps, but the fans' hopes for Holding and Tierney should be tempered with the recognition that they'll need a while to bed in, while William Saliba remains but a distant promise for next season and Mavropanos barely a rumour. Without making him sound an after-thought, Bernd Leno has been impressive despite the goals against. He has often kept Arsenal in games with smart saves and has made few unforced errors, and his command of the area and ability to deal with crosses seems to have improved. Conceding too many goals has been a problem for a few seasons now, and this season we seem to be drying-up in scoring them as well, but goal-keeping isn't the issue.

If there is an over-riding criticism that can be made of Emery's Arsenal, which also applies to the last two seasons under Wenger, it is that the team is playing too slowly. The build-ups from the back are cautious, without being particularly secure, while the distribution from deep midfield has been efficient but too predictable. Granit Xhaka has become the focus of the "boo-boys" precisely because his slowness frustrates the fans, who then get even more irritated when he commits a silly foul after being caught on the ball. The addition of David Luiz has provided another route to get the ball forward, but not one that reliably turns the opposition. The fact that he is so prominent in Arsenal's distribution reflects poorly on the midfield. The team needs an injection of pace and creativity, which for me means properly utilising both Ozil and Pepe and also gambling on an extra player who can attack the box when playing teams that defend deep. Is that something that Emery could embrace? His history in management suggests pragmatism but also caution, and I suspect that it is the latter that will ultimately cost him.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Far From the Meddling Crowd

Foreign interference in domestic politics is as old as politics. Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War makes that clear. Over the long era from the early Middle Ages to the end of the Early Modern Period, politics was dominated by international dynastic relations in which state boundaries were often incidental. It was only with the Age of Revolutions and the emergence of the notion of a sovereign people that meddling became de trop among the leading nations, though this simply led to elite carve-ups, from the Congresss of Vienna onwards, and more indirect methods of pressure rather than an actual moratorium. At the same time, these same nations thought nothing of meddling in the affairs of "lesser" states in the old manner of peremptory demands and naked violence, and not just in the field of formal empire but in the informal empires of trade and economic exploitation.

The era of modern democracy did little to reduce meddling, though it did introduce new covers for old habits in the form of international mandates, peace-keeping and sanctions. The spectre of the inter-war Communist International fed into the Cold War belief in the West that meddling was essentially anti-democratic, which both damned Russian and later Chinese influence as subversion while excusing US and British interference as virtue. After 1989, meddling was largely privatised, with economic liberalisation doing the bulk of the work in facilitating influence, formally through notionally independent international bodies (the Washington Consensus) and informally through private business relations. What was consistent over the twentieth century, like the centuries before it, was the basic dynamic: the strong do the meddling, the weak are meddled with.

This has changed since the millennium. Now the relatively weak can equally meddle in the affairs of the relatively strong. The reasons for this are usually given as a mix of the facilities provided by the Internet and the expertise developed in managing public opinion in countries like Russia, which has allowed authoritarian states to exploit the vulnerabilities of more established democracies in a form of "asymmetric warfare" minus the shooting (give or take the occasional assassination). But we shouldn't forget the extent to which the leading democracies themselves still meddle, nor the extent to which global businesses pursue their interests through politics. Russian and Chinese paranoia about US Internet companies is not without foundation. A feature of the digital economy is that it flattens and universalises the sphere of meddling, hence Americans now worry about the influence of Facebook in the same way that non-Americans once worried about the influence of McDonalds.

This worry is articulated as a belief that commercial greed is allowing Facebook's platform to be abused by foreign states, but the reality is that those foreign actors are, like domestic lobbies, simply making intended use of a medium designed to meddle at the most granular level of society. Meddling has been both democratised and commercialised. It is no coincidence that the deregulation of American political campaign finance (the infamous Citizens United judgement) occurred at the same time as the growth of new and more intrusive media; and it is no coincidence that the titans of the new digital economy are making full use of that latitude, their data assets and their wealth to influence politics both domestically and internationally. While traditional pundits wonder which party Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg will endorse, or even seek the nomination of, those gentlemen simply pursue their own political objectives directly, bypassing democratic accountability where possible.

The probable reason why the UK government had decided to shelve the Intelligence & Security Committee report on Russian meddling in British politics is not that it uncovers corruption in the Conservative party or embarrassing security breaches, but that it reveals an establishment culture that has blithely tolerated meddling as part of "doing business". It almost certainly chronicles an increase in hostile activities over the last decade coincident with greater technical capability and weaker regulation. The political risk is that the public may wonder whether the government has been dilatory in protecting the polity, a charge that could only realistically be laid at the door of the Conservatives in this timeframe. The more curious may wonder whether the scope of the ISC's investigation should have been wider than just Russian interference in the EU referendum.

It's no secret that Washington and a variety of mostly rightwing US lobby groups have sought to exert influence on British politics, and not just to open up the NHS to private health interests. This isn't new - ironically, the foundations were laid by British intervention in 1940 against isolationist candidates in US elections - but it has become much more obvious of late. For example, we recently had the spectacle of Donald Trump phoning-in to Nigel Farage's LBC radio show to rubbish Jeremy Corbyn. This might appear small beer for a President facing impeachment for meddling in Ukraine for partisan gain, but it highlights the extent to which the covert arm-twisting of the past now takes place in full public view. This isn't a sudden change brought about by Trump's gangsterism. Obama's "back of the queue" remark in 2016 would have been unthinkable twenty years earlier.

Similarly, the state of Israel makes little attempt to disguise both its actions and its aims in pushing an anti-Labour propaganda campaign in the UK. My point here is not that it is inflaming the fears of the diaspora in order to bolster its policy in the Occupied Territories, but that it is conducting this campaign in full public view. This cannot be excused on the grounds that its interests dovetail with Labour's domestic opponents and so provide it with some common legitimacy. It is meddling in British politics and doesn't feel the need to apologise for its actions any more than Russia feels the need to apologise for its disinformatzya or the poisoning of its former citizens in exile. Likewise, India has decided that it can support para-state and diaspora campaigns against Labour in order to stymie criticism of its policy in Kashmir and elsewhere.

What all these examples have in common is the belief that a state, and often a dominant faction within the state, can pursue its interests without regard to borders, which in part explains why modern international relations are more evocative of the Borgias than Bismarck (it's worth noting in passing that the preferred genre representation of geopolitics has shifted from the relative subtlety of espionage to the zero sum of sword and sorcery, from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Game of Thrones). The 2019 UK general election is likely to become a textbook study of foreign political meddling, not just because of the number and variety of meddlers, or the ambiguous attitude of the British politico-media establishment, but because it will be overwhelmingly one-sided.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Uses and Abuses

After a four day wait, Granit Xhaka, the Arsenal captain, has released a statement about his behaviour in the 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday. That he chose to do so via his personal Instagram account suggests that a statement acceptable to the club, which would have appeared through offical channels, could not be agreed. My interest here is not the rights and wrongs of the situation or Xhaka's role in Unai Emery's faltering team (I'll explore that at another time) but Xhaka's explanation of his behaviour: "My feeling of not being understood by fans, and repeated abusive comments at matches and in social media over the last weeks and months have hurt me deeply. People have said things like 'We will break your legs', 'Kill your wife' and 'Wish that your daughter gets cancer'. That has stirred me up and I reached boiling point when I felt the rejection in the stadium on Sunday".

A proper apology starts with a full acknowledgement of what is being apologised for. This is the same principle of honesty that constitutes the first of the famous twelve steps. Passive apologies - "I apologise if offence has been taken" - are an evasion. In Xhaka's case, his actions are obscured by the bland phrase "I let myself be carried away". I was in the stadium so can report on this first-hand. When Xhaka's number came up on the subs board, there was a mixture of both polite applause and some ironic cheering. The latter was initially humorous but quickly turned hostile when Xhaka decided to walk slowly to the touchline at a time when Arsenal were chasing a win, Palace having equalised 10 minutes earlier. In such a situation every player would sprint off. Dawdling is highly unusual. It was this petulance on his part that riled the fans. His further reaction, cupping his ear and swearing as he trudged off, then ripping off his shirt, merely exacerbated matters.

What I want to pick out here is Xhaka's claim that the abuse he has received from a small number of fans can be linked to "the rejection in the stadium". In other words, he is going beyond a justification of provocation to blaming the fanbase more generally, which was probably the sticking-point in the negotiations on wording with the club. This unfairly associates the great majority of his critics - i.e. fans who think he's the wrong player for the team or were simply disappointed in his performance on Sunday - with a minority whose behaviour they in no way endorse. It's also worth emphasising that the abuse Xhaka has experienced is par for the course for most footballers who face the double challenge of occasionally disgruntled fans of their own team as well as permanently hostile fans of rivals. Harry Kane gets far worse abuse from Arsenal fans than Xhaka does, while Raheem Sterling could point out that he has had to contend with abusive tabloid journalists as well.

This manoeuvre of deflection through guilt-by-association is well-known in politics. For example, the claim that Labour is "institutionally antisemitic" rests not on the policies and practices of the party as an institution but on holding the mass of the membership (deemed guilty by virtue of electing Corbyn as leader) responsible for the behaviour of a small number of online trolls, many of whom aren't even party members or supporters. The announcement that various MPs will be retiring this week provides another example, with the media focusing on the number of women and in particular the claim that they have been hounded out of public life by abuse: "Lib Dem Sarah Wollaston said those women leaving the Conservatives were much younger and had spent less time as MPs in the Commons - compared to the older men who were at the age of retirement. And that they were leaving sooner because of the abuse."

In fact, the number of women retiring is proportionate to the composition of the Commons, and there are clearly some for whom abuse was not a prime factor, such as Amber Rudd who was constructively dismissed by the Tory whips. The dimension that does stand out is age, but the suggestion that this is indicative of a problem with abuse is dubious. Many of the women MPs who are retiring entered Parliament in their 30s or 40s during the period between 1997 and 2015. They were beneficiaries of the pro-women policies of both the main parties: "Blair's babes" and the all women shortlists of Labour, and the more female-friendly open selections pioneered by the Cameroonian Tories (Wollaston was one such beneficiary). In other words, this concerns a generation of MPs who represented the movement of both parties towards the political centre. Their early departure reflects the reversal of that movement, not a spike in hate crimes.

That many of this cohort have chosen to join the Liberal Democrats rather than retire does not indicate a thicker skin on the part of some so much as a pragmatic career adjustment. Wollaston herself admitted as much: "Why would you put up with all that abuse, if at the same time you’re unhappy about the direction of travel?" (I don't think she meant to suggest that the abuse would be tolerable had the Conservative Party not changed direction). At this point it is important to bear in mind that most of what counts as "abuse" is simple raillery or insults, rather than threats of violence, but it has become commonplace to equate incivility with criminal incitement. This both marginalises legitimate dissent and treats anger as an illegitimate political expression. Just as Arsenal fans are entitled to be angry about their team's shortcomings, so the electorate are entitled to swear at MPs. Criticising the "mob" for a lack of virtue is anti-politics.

Predictably, old media has decided that the problem is the lack of regulation of new media. This has produced some startlingly poor reasoning, particularly from traditional defenders of press freedom. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian is happy to discriminate between old and new: "The British press has fought against state regulation, other than over monopoly and laws of libel. I think that is right, not out of principle but because statutory regulation is not justified by press misbehaviour or imbalance – or not yet. Self-regulation sort of works. At present it is not the mainstream media driving decent people out of politics". This appears on the same day as further reports about Keith Vaz, who is being driven out of politics not just by his own behaviour but by a classic tabloid sting. I use him as an example because Jenkins' appeal to virtue - "decent people" - is irrelevant. Vaz is a pompous arse and Parliament would be well rid of him, but he has as much right to a private life as anyone else.

Granit Xhaka's triggering of the home crowd last Sunday may not have been entirely spontaneous. He probably didn't expect to be hauled off, but I suspect he had already decided that he will move on from Arsenal in the next year or two. He has never given the impression that he intended to see out the rest of his career in North London (he's 27) and his technique and style would better suit a less frenetic league where his lack of pace and tendency towards clumsy fouls would be less exposed and his passing from deep would be more appreciated (he could well thrive as a regista in Serie A). Falling out with the fans in such a spectacular fashion will hasten his departure. Framing that rift as the fans' fault merely makes a climbdown less likely. In similar fashion, the emphasis on the abuse received by women MPs in the announcement of imminent retirements distracts from the political reconstitution underway and obscures a calculated career move with moralising guff.

You don't have to buy into the narrative of "polarisation" and movement towards the "extremes" to see that a generation of centrist politicians is being winnowed. That doesn't mean that they are an endangered species or must needs look to the Liberal Democrats as a life-raft. The damp squib of Labour's trigger ballots suggest that centrists can still prosper within its "broad church", while the Tories' partial reversal of their recent purge indicates that a simple loyalty oath may be enough to survive. That many of them are women simply reflects the recruitment and candidacy policies of the two major parties over the last two decades. That many of them have been on the end of vile abuse reflects an anti-politics culture that has been assiduously cultivated by the press since the 1970s. That Diane Abbott is the most abused female MP of the lot reflects less her own distinction as a prominent black woman than the fact that she has been targeted by right-leaning journalists, including many female ones, for decades.