Friday, 24 June 2022

Mick Lynch Summer

Contrary to the claim of the Prime Minister, we are not facing a wage-price spiral. For this to be true, wage increases would have to be regularly beating inflation, and they are not. In fact, current wage demands are well behind the projected increase in prices. For example, the rail unions are looking for around 7% at a time when inflation is rising to 9%. It's also worth emphasising that what is driving inflation is not wages but the cost of goods. As the ONS has explained, "Inflation is being fuelled by food and non-alcoholic drink prices, which are rising at the fastest annual rate since 2009, with the most dramatic increases seen in the cost of bread, cereals and meat." We are all familiar with the geopolitics of the increase in gas and electricity bills, and now we are seeing the supply-chain ramifications of disruptive factors such as China's Covid-19 lockdown and the war in Ukraine, but we shouldn't let these exceptional events obscure that the chief driver in rising prices is actually profit-seeking, which is often in turn the consequence of growing monopoly power. What this means is that inflation isn't going be "tamed" any time soon, no matter how modest trade unions are in their expectations. 

Those limited areas of the economy where wages are rising faster than inflation tend to be high-skill and relatively small. They also tend to avoid criticism by government, in part because they are sectors viewed benignly, such as banking, but also because their success is attributed to just deserts: whether through increased productivity or simply as the result of effective competition in a free market. Of course it's a commonplace to note the hypocrisy of politicians dividing society into makers and takers in this way, but perhaps the greatest echo of the notorious 1970s is the return of class to public debate, in the sense of overt material interests unadorned by culture war nonsense or the framing of inter-generational conflict. This turn has been marked in the UK by the incredulity of the liberal media on discovering that a working class trade union leader can be intelligent, articulate and sympathetic. The ensuing reverse-ferret has seen him achieve national treasure status in record time. It can only be a matter of days now before the Sun splashes on his "holiday hideaway paid for by union funds" or unearths some wobbly video of him appearing on a platform with Gerry Adams thirty years ago.

While Mick Lynch has good-humouredly played along with his role of dancing bear, he has used the opportunity to make it clear that he has nothing but contempt for the fourth estate and is unwilling to put up with its bullshit, which stands in marked contrast to the nominal leaders of the wider labour movement. Through this act of omission, he has made perhaps the most damning criticism of the Labour Party without the need to even mention Keir Starmer's name. Of course we should recognise that what motivates Labour's behaviour is not cowardice - the "power of the press" is exaggerated, not least by the press itself - but ideological congruence. As Jeremy Gilbert noted, "since the 1980s we have seen the consolidation of a professional class of senior managers, politicians and media operatives, who tend to share a culture and an outlook, whichever political parties or institutions they may be attached to. Its members tend to be socially liberal, but also utterly committed to the assumption that socialism, and even traditional social democracy, are political philosophies that died with the 20th century."

Gilbert has to choose his words carefully to get through the centrist filter of the Guardian, but it is clear that this is a class critique as much as a lament for the missed opportunities of the past: "While at one time it was the Labour party itself that was supposed to be the vehicle for bringing such people into public life, for much of the Blair period and beyond it has prevented these people from reaching positions of power, with the exception of the period of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership." However, this is slightly misleading in that plenty of trade union hacks rose up the ranks and secured safe seats as part of the PLP during the Blair years too. That professional class of senior managers is to be found at the TUC's annual conference as much the CBI's shindigs. What is different about Lynch is not his class authenticity - with the unstated, patronising assumption that he might not be a whizz with spreadsheets or give a stuff about the niceties of HR policy - but that he is clearly representing class interests. This is a spectacle of class performance.

The response of the government has been interesting. Despite the 70s-style rhetorical tropes, they haven't tried to frame the struggle in the class terms familiar from that decade, when the damage done by inflation to "savers" was paramount and the critique of "over-mighty unions" segued into the demand to "let managers manage". Instead the focus has been on the divide-and-rule demographics that have dominated British politics since the 1990s, notably the need to protect pensioners. As the Guardian reported, "Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, defended the government’s actions on public sector pay, saying raising it could lead to a “vicious cycle of inflation”. He said it was right to hold out against higher wages for rail workers, who are striking this week over their pay, saying the government must not give in to “militant unions”. Defending the decision to raise pensions in line with inflation, he said: “[Pensioners] are particularly vulnerable and they are disproportionately affected by the increase in energy costs which we know everyone is facing.”"

This isn't just electoral calculation, otherwise the government would be doing a lot more for the elderly. We shouldn't forget that the state pension remains relatively ungenerous compared to other countries in Western Europe. The triple-lock has gone some way to improve the pensioner's lot in recent years, but it is an improvement from a low base. Pensioner poverty is still a thing. That said, they do enjoy some relative advantages. For example, they are less exposed to higher prices for petrol and food than families with young children. But to make these points is to fall into the trap of pitting age groups against each other and so occluding class. There are rich pensioners and poor pensioners; rich kids and poor kids. What ultimately determines their lives is not the degree of favour in which they are held by government but their ability to independently negotiate wages (and pension contributions) in return for their labour. It is the display of independence by the RMT that causes offence across the "professional class of senior managers, politicians and media operatives", hence Starmer's foolish ban on picket line appearances by his front-bench.

Where the government has returned to the arguments of the 70s is in reviving the traditional "private sector good, public sector bad" dichotomy, with the insistence that the size of the former - and the generosity of its remuneration - is a drag on the economy as a whole. This is an odd claim to make given that they have been in office for all bar 13 of the last 43 years (and their ideological hegemony has persisted throughout). You'd think over that time they'd have fulfilled their ambition of reducing the public sector to the point where its economic impact was marginal, or to have at least admitted defeat and accepted that "the state is always with us" and thus needed to be adequately funded. This was always a specious argument because the real concern was not "crowding out" but the risk of public sector wage increases setting a benchmark for the private sector. In other words, what they fear is a wage-wage spiral. I enjoyed the Economist's typically dry take on the subject which ended with the footnote "This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Wage fright"".

The government has got itself into a bind of its own making. The expectations raised by Brexit of a high-productivity, high-wage economy unburdened by red tape were always pie in the sky, but Boris Johnson can't turn round now and say the sunlit uplands are off the menu. Equally, the idea of levelling-up, despite its policy incoherence, was always premised on a public expectation of investment in the fabric of the country. However much this might simply mean more tax revenues being diverted into the coffers of private businesses, in the manner seen during the pandemic, there is a common belief that it would lead to a reinforcement of the public sector, not further cuts and a steady decline in the services on which the depressed areas of the North and Midlands depend. It's also worth noting that one of the most effective ways of boosting small towns would be through pay rises for public sector workers, as in many they are the largest employment group and therefore a major driver of economic demand. 

What we are witnessing in the current inflationary moment is not the power of labour organised on a national scale (i.e. public sector unions) but the power of capitalism organised on a global scale (i.e. the likes of Cargill). In the 1970s, the political right were able to convince the public that capitalism was fettered and that its freedom would benefit all. That argument convinces few today. If anything, impulses like Brexit and levelling-up have to be seen as attempts to constrain global capital, not to empower it even further. In this context, the Labour Party's clear preference for business over organised labour is strategically obtuse and likely to prove electorally damaging, no matter how badly the Tories run government over the next few years and no matter how many low-turnout by-elections like Wakefield the party wins. The liberal media's focus on Mick Lynch is a distraction from the necessary choice of capital versus labour, just as the Labour Party's incessant blather about brand values and "repairing the Red Wall" is a distraction from its neoliberal ideology.

Friday, 17 June 2022

Homo Sacer

The news that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has approved the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States will not have come as a surprise to anyone. Despite the Conservative Party's historically late conversion to the cause of free speech, it clearly sees the WikiLeaks co-founder as on the wrong side in the all-enveloping culture war, and that's before you consider the likelihood of the government wilfully pissing-off the Americans at a time when it is still hopeful of a trade deal. There has been an equally predictable reaction among the British press, ranging from good riddance on the right to liberal outlets pleading the cause of free expression and conscience but largely going through the motions, as if their hearts aren't really in it. It's notable that the Guardian in particular is incapable of reporting on Assange without raking over his supposed misbehaviour in respect of the collapsed Swedish rape case and his breaking bail in order to seek refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy. As much as its sneering at celebrity libel cases such as Vardy vs Rooney, and tutting over the "abusive spectacle" of Depp vs Heard, its coverage of the Assange trials has revealed its prejudices, which since Alan Rusbridger's rapprochement with the security state have included giving the spooks the benefit of the doubt.

Lost in the noise is the original leak, which was clearly both an act of conscience by Chelsea Manning and a legitimate case of free expression and public interest journalism by WikiLeaks. The claims that it endangered US national security and the lives of its foreign informers have never stood up to scrutiny. Even veterans of the national security machine admit that the impact was modest and largely limited to embarrassment, not just of the US but of its often craven allies. The suggestion that intelligence sources in Iraq and Afghanistan were compromised has never been substantiated, though you could be certain the New York Times would have published evidence of the Taliban exacting revenge if they could find any. The truth is that while the cables were classified they were not top secret: they didn't involve the genuinely valuable intelligence assets. Most were simply background noise. Their value was that in aggregate they displayed an attitude of bullying contempt by the US towards its allies, which was hardly a shocking revelation. The pursuit of Manning and Assange is little more than revenge and a desire to deter others through exemplary punishment.

The British government's decision has come at the end of a week that also saw Aaron Banks lose his libel case against Carole Cadwalladr of the Observer. The case against Assange is essentially that he knew he was being reckless in publishing the leaked diplomatic cables and thus has no defence of public interest. As a consequence, his actions amount to espionage rather than journalism. Given how reckless the press has been over the years (incidentally, an argument at the heart of the "Brexit was a con" campaign), this is a debatable distinction. In contrast, Banks failed in his attempt to show that Cadwalladr was reckless in suggesting he was in the pay of Russia in her Ted talk and tweets, essentially because the judge ruled that so long as Cadwalladr thought her statements were in the public interest, "a journalist is not required to guarantee the accuracy of her facts". There's obviously a world of difference between criminal and libel law, not least in the threshold for proof, but this does highlight an important point that gets to the heart of free speech: that you are entitled to be wrong. 

Where the judge has been remarkably generous towards the journalist ("Ms Cadwalladr has no defence of truth, and her defence of public interest has succeeded only in part") is in deciding that when the inacurracy of her Ted talk claims came to light - i.e. when the Electoral Commission found no evidence of law-breaking by Banks with respect to donations - the continued public circulation of the talk was unlikely to cause Banks any real reputational harm, which is a polite way of saying that he didn't have much of a reputation to defend and should get over himself. Mrs Justice Steyn did not pass judgement on Cadwalladr's failure to apologise to Banks for being inaccurate, though this was central to the plaintiff's whole case. As he put it this week, "This was never about seeking to silence criticism. Carole knows that had she apologised and agreed not to repeat this false accusation at the outset, these proceedings would never have been necessary". He's not a man it's easy to feel sympathy for, but he unquestionably has a point.

The case highlights the lack of any formal means of redress against media misreporting, short of an expensive libel action that only someone of Banks's wealth could consider, but you can easily understand why Steyn decided not to venture onto that terrain and risk being accused by the press of trying to resurrect Leveson. I don't think we should underestimate the extent to which the press's turn against the judiciary in recent years - "enemies of the people" etc - was fuelled by the fallout from the Leveson Inquiry, in particular the ongoing cases over phone-hacking damages. Likewise, we shouldn't be misled by the empty Rwanda flight this week into thinking that the government's target is solely the European Convention on Human Rights and the court in Strasbourg. Most of those refugees were taken off the plane manifest as a result of injunctions allowed by English judges under UK law. The appeal to Strasbourg simply mopped up the handful of individuals that remained due to board.

The Guardian's own judgement on the Banks vs Cadwalladr case predictably claimed it was "an important victory for free speech and public-interest reporting" and (perhaps a little too frankly) "a boost to a media industry, which, when it comes to court cases, has had little to cheer about in recent times." But, in the manner seen in its coverage of Assange, it also muddied the waters by chuntering on about "the online trolling, abuse and harassment Cadwalladr had faced". Given that much of that so-called trolling was justified - i.e. claims that Cadwalladr was talking bollocks and had long ago crossed the line into paranoid conspiricism - the attempt to paint this as mere misogyny was depressing. It would appear that the paper that claims "Facts are sacred" is not above the manipulative emotionalism it decries in others, while Cadwalladr herself is very selective in what she considers to be fair criticism. The facts of the matter are that Cadwalladr was wrong to say what she did but that the wider liberal media campaign to establish a conspiracy behind Brexit meant that her contribution to damaging Banks's reputation was considered inconsequential by the court. That's hardly a victory for free speech.

Julian Assange will probably be extradited to the US, though his case will go all the way to the UK Supreme Court first and, who knows, maybe even Strasbourg. Once on US soil, he will be tried, found guilty (let's not be naive) and will probably then spend most, if not all, of the rest of his life in jail (a Presidential pardon is unlikely). His is, without question, the most important test case of free speech in the world today because his opponent is the most powerful state in the world and one which has made no bones about its belief that raison d'etat trumps law, notably in respect of war crimes - the very substance of the WikiLeaks revelations. Though the "media industry" was happy to publish much of the leaked material Assange provided - not least the Guardian - it has proven abjectly weak in its defence of the man, constantly introducing tests of character and muttering about irresponsibility. This is partly professional elitism (they don't recognise him as a journalist) and partly partisanship (though his politics are actually quite opaque), but above all it is simple cowardice in the face of an implacable US state that seeks to make an example of him.

Friday, 10 June 2022

Tomorrow Will Be Better

There's an air of "something is rotten in the state" at the moment, and not just because the Tories failed coup against Boris Johnson has left him like a beached whale gently decomposing in the sun. Some of this is attributable to the government's lack of a coherent programme, though surely no one familiar with Johnson's time as London Mayor can really have believed that he was going to be the busy figurehead of an activist administration. Some can even be traced back to the foolhardiness of the way that Brexit was negotiated, but even this strikes me more as symptom than cause. In fact, the growing unease about British politics is clearly the reflection of a wider malaise that encompasses Keir Starmer's underwhelming impact despite a steady poll lead as much as Johnson's lazy and inept performance. I think the root of this is a crisis of confidence in the UK state that dates back to the 1970s but which has arguably worsened since 2008. While analyses like Tom Nairn's The Breakup of Britain are nowadays held to be insightful but at best premature, they conform to the standard historiography, whether that be conservative or Marxist, in focusing on the elite strata of the state. Insufficient attention has been paid to the popular narrative, despite the influence of Gramsci on British intellectuals.

The obvious exception to this was Grantham's most famous daughter, Margaret Thatcher. Though her prescription was reactionary, from planting flags on remote colonial outposts and sympathy for our "kith and kin" in Apartheid South Africa, to crushing the unions and hamstringing local government "at home", she unquestionably addressed the spectre of decline head on, even if many would argue that the "decline" diagnosed in the 1970s was a misrepresentation of postwar history. What she (or, perhaps more accurately, the economic recovery of the late-80s) did engender was a renewed confidence in both personal and social advance, though she remained ideologically focused on the former and hostile to the latter. Much of the social development of recent decades has been attributed to the 1990s as a period when a tired Conservative government found itself out-of-step with society, but this underplays the extent to which trends such as the increasing tolerance of sexual and gender diversity and the increasing intolerance of racism at a popular level have their roots in the disruption of the late-70s and early-80s. Jerry Dammers, not John Lydon, was the true cultural harbinger.

There's an obvious contradiction between the promise of a better tomorrow - the "British dream", as some politicians have ill-advisedly described it - and the UK's historic trajectory, not just since 2008 but arguably since 1945. While the optimism of the late-80s felt like a return to normal (fuelling another boom in 60s nostalgia), the ensuing recession suggested that the "great moderation" was more apparent than real, a feeling that would be confirmed by the increase in financial crises globally around the millennium, culminating in the crash of 2008. The victory of New Labour in 1997 was driven by many factors but a crucial one was the popular appetite for change and the sense of optimism this entailed. The hangover, seen most clearly in declining turnout in elections, was intense. In key ways the Blair and Brown administrations followed the template of Attlee's 1945 government. While Sure Start is hardly a monument comparable to the NHS, it was consistent in its top-down, officious social democracy. But the real parallel I want to draw with Labour's most famous "reforming" government is that it enacted little actual reform at the meta-level of the state, particularly in terms of democracy.

The opportunities spurned by Attlee were legion, from reform of the House of Lords to workers' control (the management of the NCB was literally the old management of private industry, which inevitably led to conflict despite the initial spirit of cooperation exhibited by the NUM). Though the thumbnail history emphasises the independence of India, the postwar government was actually fully determined to hang on to empire for as along as it could, even if this was for cynical economic reasons (dollar exports) rather than the nostalgic imperialism of Churchill. Likewise, the 1997-2010 years witnessed a failure to properly address the City of London and the housing market. The expansion of further education omitted to address the entrenched privileges of elite universities, while the increased investment in the NHS and other public services saw much of it creamed-off by the private sector due to the failure to reverse marketisation. Blair and Brown proved effective administrators of the state but they were never in the business of reforming it, beyond what were intended to be essentially cosmetic gestures around devolution and the Lords. 

The failure of the progressive party to actually progress at the level of the state has led to a strange inversion in recent years whereby it is nominal conservatives who demand root-and-branch reform. While some of this is simply the anti-state rhetoric normalised by Thatcher, predicated on a "rollback" to some earlier Eden, some goes beyond this style to envisage radical departures from the historical course, the most obvious example being Brexit. While the denouement suggests a lack of real thought about what was desired, it would be wrong to attribute the current mess to Tory incompetence alone. There is clearly a popular, if not overwhelming, appetite for change in the social and economic order (witness the optimism of 2017) and one that sees the state, rather than the market or organised labour, as the means by which this can be effected. The very idea of progress has become sufficiently hegemonic, if only as an aesthetic preference, that Tories now compete with contemporary "radicals" as agents of change, from levelling-up to threats against the conservative forces of the judiciary. The absorption of RCP cadres by the Conservative press is an example of this - less Furedi et al's ideological opportunism than a recognition that the polarity has switched: the Conservatives are expected to reform; Labour is expected to preserve.

That the Labour Party has moved to the right of the Tories on some issues is not simply a reflection of the current leadership's innate conservatism and disdain for popular activism, it also points to the necessity of the "other party" adjusting to ensure that the political locus remains in the centre (i.e. centre-right). The more the Tories shift to the left, even if only in rhetoric, the greater the pressure on Labour not to shift further left but to move rightwards and maintain a balance, again if only in rhetoric. But regardless of which party plays which role, there is an expectation that the combination will produce steady, incremental change without major disruption to the establishment. This doesn't ignore the popular appetite for change but instead assumes that a mix of soundbites and spectacle will satisfy it so long as the economy is working well enough for the majority. The limits of this were visible in the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, which suggested a degree of respect for the sphinx-like monarch but less than fervent enthusiasm for the monarchy. Similarly, the liberal commentariat's fascination with tweaks to the upper chamber of Parliament or the political cast-list fails to chime with the wider public. 

The contemporary problem is that while we have seen a rapid growth in circuses over the last two decades people are increasingly struggling for bread, and if there's one lesson that commentators have taken from the 1970s it is that material deprivation - wages falling behind inflation - can create a revolutionary atmosphere. Ironically, what the era actually produced was a counter-revolution, in large part because people didn't lack for bread, either in the 70s or the 80s: Thatcher famously oversaw an explosion in state benefits that was barely reversed by her successors (both Conservative and Labour) until the introduction of austerity and Universal Credit under David Cameron. The growth in foodbanks and the exacerbating factors of precarious employment and the gig economy are relatively recent phenomena in historical terms, and consequently the situation we find ourselves now in can legitimately be termed unprecedented, particularly if the forecasts on inflation (high) and wage growth (low) prove accurate. Whether this will produce a revolutionary situation is impossible to tell, but it's obvious that without suitable fall-guys (note the persistence of Jeremy Corbyn in the imaginations of many commentators), popular anger will inevitably be directed towards the actual establishment and the rich, rather than the media fiction of the "enemies of the people".

In the 1970s, the establishment directed popular anger towards the public sector while preserving the state itself and reaffirming the interests of capital. This time round there is less confidence that the trick can be pulled off again, not simply because of the battered state of our public services but because the supposed vested interests - union "barons" and feather-bedded civil servants then, Islington lawyers and student unions now - are comically out of proportion (the RMT's threat of strike action has been a god-send to the press, allowing them to disinter some of their favourite tropes, but that union's exceptional circumstances are all-too obvious). It is this that constitutes the crisis of confidence. The contemporary state is a paper tiger that could collapse under the slightest pressure. For all the trumpeting of the achievements of the vaccine taskforce and the foregrounding of senior civil servants like Chris Whitty, we all know that the pandemic was negotiated through popular initiative and responsibility, hence the dismay over the inequitable treatment of breaches. The farce of "partygate" has not simply revealed the entitlement and arrogance at the heart of government, it has reinforced the impression that the establishment is incapable of defending itself any longer. An open goal for Sir Keir Starmer QC? Cometh the hour; cometh the establishment's man.

Friday, 3 June 2022

Eyeing Up The Talent

When liberal commentators talk about the Labour Party they are invariably talking about the nature of the political system. The subtext of their all too frequent disappointment is that the country deserves a better progressive vehicle than a party that ostensibly respresents the interests of the working class, or one that is "in hock to the trade unions", in the traditional parlance. This is notably different to the subtext of their comment on the Conservative Party - something that is all too apparent at the moment - which boils down to wishing for a better class of Tory: more virtuous, more intelligent, less overt in their hatred of the poor and vulnerable. It does not extend to wondering whether the Conservative Party should even exist. Two examples of the former came this week from Neal Lawson in the New Statesman and Martin Kettle in the Guardian. You'll not be surprised to learn that Lawson remains the more sympathetic, his analysis being a lament for the party's lack of intellectual substance, while Kettle makes no bones about his contempt for democracy. What they share is an instrumental attitude towards the party, the origins of which can be found a century ago in the reformation of the political system with the arrival of universal suffrage.

In its original incarnation, Labour was essentially a ginger group of the Liberals. The formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 at the instigation of the TUC led to its independence, though this didn't preclude a secret electoral pact with the larger party in 1906, a template that has been regularly revived by liberal commentators ever since despite Labour supplanting the Liberals as the opposition to the Conservatives and despite the recent memory of the coalition government. More subtle analysts have seen the process as one by which Labour was effectively house-trained (that house being the Commons), with its more radical elements, such as the Marxist SDF, marginalised and the party apparat secured by an uneasy alliance between the trade unions and the progressive middle class represented by the Fabians. In embryo we see two themes that run through Labour's history: a commitment to constitutionalism and a disdain for the party membership. Keir Starmer, in his gushing royalism as much as his willingness to expel anyone to his left, is firmly in that tradition.

Against this backdrop, Neal Lawson's claim that "Labour’s leadership is an ideas-free zone" and that "There is no discernible political project" seems naive. To be fair, he does recognise that this may not represent an abrupt departure from history: "In truth, Labour has always found ideas problematic. It was never an intellectual party ... but it tolerated some intellectuals. Today it seems happy to be hollowed out. Dry nouns such as security, prosperity and respect are as deep as it gets." The point is that "equality", "the working man" and even "socialism" were just as dry in their time, the substance being ameliorism, social conservatism and managerialism. Lawson's sympathy results in a heroic effort to find Labour's contemporary Gramsci that immediately descends into bathos: "First, to be clear, this is not to argue the party doesn't have people who think. David Lammy, Lisa Nandy, Steve Reed and others in and around the shadow cabinet have ideas, as do backbenchers such as Clive Lewis, Stella Creasy and Jon Cruddas."

A less sympathetic observer might ask why the intellectuals of the left over the last 100 years have all, with rare exceptions like RH Tawney, been further to the left of the party (think of Tom Nairn or Stuart Hall), or why attempts to coopt intellectuals in the Blair years, such as Anthony Giddens, proved so evanescent. One might also ask why the intellectual discourse of the party, or what passes for it, is currently dominated by a chancer like Paul Mason. To give him his due, Lawson does suggest that Starmer's anti-intellectualism is purposeful: "The party’s claim isn’t to any radical new ideas or big plans but to competence, integrity and internal party control. The aim of the former two is to provide a contrast with Boris Johnson, the aim of the latter is to ensure Corbynism never happens again." He also correctly identifies the cartel motivation of Starmer's leadership: "Cocooned by the first past the post voting system, Labour is guaranteed second place in a two-horse race, and with it the trappings of being Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition: Short Money, broadcast time and PMQs." 

However, his sense of irony appears to desert him in the final stretch: "A political project of meaning takes years to assemble. And so, integrity replaces ideas, personality replaces policy and competence replaces a crusade." Faced with a party leader who dissimulated to win election, has proved to have the personality of lump of wood, and who has managed to put his own career at risk by a fatuous commitment to resign if he gets a fixed penalty notice for eating a curry, you do have to wonder whether Lawson is actually taking the piss here. Beneath this hand-wringing over Labour's current lack of policy substance, or the absence of a coherent electoral narrative beyond "We're not as bad as the other lot", lies a Fabian distaste for the organic development of political ideas that was all-too obvious in the resistance to "Corbynism", and which can also be seen in the wariness by which the party responds to local initiatives like the Preston model or any signs of union militancy. Instead there is the never-ending hunt for another saviour who can impose a new spin on old liberal ideas from the top down.

Martin Kettle provided an example of this in his piece on "the Andy Burnham problem in British politics". As he puts it, "The problem is the mismatch between the realities of British politics and governance on the one hand and the assumed supremacy of the unreformed Westminster parliament on the other. Burnham’s case is particularly topical, because there may shortly be a vacancy for leader of the Labour party." This manages to neatly capture both the obsessive constitutional tinkering and personal callousness of the liberal commentariat. Having striven so hard to get Starmer elected, they now seek another vessel for their ideals of integrity, personality and competence. And, to be fair, Burnham would appear to score more highly than the current party leader on all counts, though that really isn't saying much. Kettle reveals his true thinking in a throwaway remark: "Any system that played a part in stopping a talented Tory like Ruth Davidson playing a larger role on the UK stage is a failing system." Liberals will never cease in their admiration for a Tory who isn't an obvious swine.

Kettle's solution to the Burnham problem is predictable in its elitism and impracticality: "Some will argue that the answer is an all-embracing new constitutional settlement, in which the great cities, regions and nations are all somehow represented, German Bundesrat-style, in a new upper house to replace the Lords." As ever, bicameralism remains an article of faith (checks and balances, doncha know) while the assumption about who would benefit from this arrangement is itself revealing: "In an intergovernmental scheme of that sort the devolution barons – Drakeford and Donaldson, Nicola Sturgeon and maybe even a future first minister of England – might find a place ex officio, helping to make dual mandates more comprehensible and less open to charges of sleaze, and making it more likely that the parties will be able to elect the leaders they want." That Jeffrey Donaldson gets the nod isn't simply because Sinn Fein wouldn't take a seat at Westminster. He is the establishment choice. All that such a scheme would produce would be an even greater incentive for the party hierarchies to fix the selection of candidates in local and devolved government.

What this country needs is not a reformed upper house, or a wider pool of career politicians from which to select party leaders, but a genuine commitment to democracy: build it and they will come. The reason the political class is so low on talent isn't because the constitutional system hasn't kept pace with devolution but because that devolution has been treated as little more than theatre to keep the whining periphery happy and channeled into the traditional grooves of party patronage. The current refusal of unionists in Northern Ireland to abide by the rules of their devolution settlement isn't an outlier. The extirpation of Jeremy Corbyn was likewise an example of the political class expelling what it considered to be an illegitimate incursion into its domain. What Sinn Fein and Corbyn had in common was not a commitment to Irish unity but that they reflected popular opinion and thus an organic development of political ideas. Lawson's hunt for an intellectual party elite, like Kettle's desire for a more virtuous one, is ultimately a determination to talk about anything other than democracy.

Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Bring Back The Old Songs

There are a number of reasons why I've never been a fan of the song Good Old Arsenal, such as the use of the bumptious Rule, Britannia! tune and the fact that Jimmy Hill wrote the lyrics. But the main reason is that it sounds so anxious: "while we sing this song we'll win the game". I'd prefer a song in which victory wasn't dependent on the fans ruining their vocal chords. The most anxious football fans are not those who follow teams at the top or bottom of the table. Despite the best efforts of the media to make the final day of the season a festival of jeopardy and uncertainty, the end results were largely predictable. Manchester City held off Liverpool, as they have done for months, while the relegation of Burnley, along with the already-relegated Watford and Norwich, was long foretold. Leeds managed enough of a bounce after sacking Marcelo Bielsa to reach safety, in no small part because their small squad has some talented, young players, while the Clarets's decision to ditch Sean Dyche couldn't arrest their decline simply because they remained his team: obdurate and ugly but ageing and lacking quality. No, the most anxious fans are those in between because their teams tends to flirt with either ascension into the upper strata or collapse into the lower depths. If your team manages to do both in the same season, then you may need medical support. 

It's fair to say that Arsenal's season has been a curate's egg. From bottom of the table after a calamitous opening run of three defeats to peaking at 2 points behind Chelsea in third in April. That we were pipped to fourth and Champions League qualification by Spurs was down to many factors during the run-in - injuries to key players, a lack of depth, the naivety of a young squad - but really it all came down to the month of April, which served as a microcosm of the season. Three defeats in a row against Crystal Palace, Brighton and Southampton suggested mid-table obscurity, but then a superb counter-attacking win at Stamford Bridge and a battering of Manchester United at home suggested a bright future. Had we turned one of those three defeats into a victory, we would (mutatis, mutandis) have finished fourth, a point ahead of Tottenham. We might even have been sufficiently confident that Arteta could have played a more defensive game at White Hart Lane and come away with a draw, or even nicked a win, instead of going toe-to-toe and coming up short.

Broken down into thirds (games 1-12, 13-25 and 26-38), the season record is a bell curve: 20 points, then 28 and finally 21. Despite that purple patch in the middle, Arsenal only rose from fifth to the giddy heights of fourth, though it also saw their goal difference improve from -4 to 12. This points to a wider story of mediocrity among the chasing pack, with Manchester United, Spurs and West Ham also culpable. It's worth remembering that after 12 games Chelsea were top by 3 points. By game 25 they were third and 16 points behind City (albeit the eventual champions had played 2 more games by then). The overall tale of the season then is obviously one of two elite teams, City and Liverpool, racing ahead of the pack. The final gap between second and third was 18 points, the gap from first to third 19. In contrast, 19 points down from third takes you to between West Ham United in 7th and Leciester City in 8th. 

What this means for Arsenal is that a realistic target is third. Having moved from a final position of 8th in 2021 to 5th now, that's certainly achievable, but it will require a significant improvement not only in the playing staff but in game management. As the youngest squad in the league, with the youngest manager, there's every reason to believe that we can advance on both fronts, and there is a palpable sense of support for "the process" both among the club hierarchy and a fanbase hitherto known for being particularly grumpy and fractious. This new harmony is perhaps best reflected in the adoption of Louis Dunford's The Angel as a terrace anthem. The lyrics aren't much better than Jimmy Hill's ("North London foreva, whateva the wevva"), but at least they're optimistic. While the voluble support and engagement of the fans has obviously owed something to the lifting of the pandemic restrictions, it's also clear that we've passed a watershed in the post-Wenger transition phase. The underperformers and mood-hoovers that Arteta inherited have been moved on, even if this has stymied us short-term by depleting numbers. The incoming players have been of variable quality, but White and Tomiyasu are likely to be mainstays in future while Lokonga will probably improve, particularly if he gets to play in the Europa League. Whether the chaos-agent that is Nuno Tavares can improve is another matter.

The eruption of youth has caught the eye, but what's particularly promising is how mature those younger players are, both on and off the pitch. It is the older players, like Xhaka and Cedric, who have at times proved hot-headed and panicky, not the likes of Saka, Smith-Rowe or Ødegaard (deservedly wearing the captain's armband of late). Not for the first time, Arsenal's tally of 4 red cards (only beaten by Everton's 6) owed much to some dubious refereeing decisions, notably against Gabriel Martinelli in the away game at Molineux. The tally of 60 yellows was eighth lowest - respectably mid-table. The one exception to the image of level-headed youth is Aaron Ramsdale, who seemed to get more jittery as the season advanced (perhaps recalling his previous relegation with Sheffield United), however this is probably part and parcel of a personality that has proved popular with the fans and should be indulged to a degree. I'm firmly of the old school belief that great goalkeepers are essentially odd-balls. I also suspect he's still pinching himself over how much progress he has made since signing for Arsenal: first-choice and an England cap. 

So the future looks bright. Attention now switches to the all-important work of Mikel Arteta and Edu Gaspar, the Technical Director, in acquiring the right new players to either give us greater depth in key positions or to fill some obviously gaping holes. The former is largely about greater resilience in defence. Assuming William Saliba makes his long-awaited debut and someone like Aaron Hickey comes in, we should be stronger, though I suspect Arteta may want further cover if Cedric leaves. In midfield, the question is whether to hope that Partey stays fit and Lokonga matures or to invest in another player. This will ultimately come down to whether Xhaka stays or goes. As ever, it's impossible to predict which way he will jump, though the crowd on the final day against Everton certainly gave him plenty of appreciation. Up-front, we remain blessed with exciting wingers and support strikers but have a massive hole where Aubameyang used to be. Pepé looks like he's in the departure lounge, along with Alexandre Lacazette, though I doubt we'll recover more than a fraction of his club record fee.

What's not clear at this stage is what Arteta wants in a forward, given the various names we've been linked with, or whether he hopes to keep Nketiah in the squad. If Eddie leaves on a free transfer, we'll need two strikers and that will be difficult given the likely cost. My guess is that Nketiah will re-sign and we'll go all-in on a proven goal-scorer who can play a similar poaching role. That would point to someone like Gabriel Jesus, rather than a more traditional spearhead like Dominic Calvert-Lewin (whose "audition" on Sunday at the Emirates Stadium proved that he has learnt a lot from Duncan Ferguson, though not all of it technically qualifies as football). An outside bet would be Olly Watkins, who looks like a player on an upward trajectory. That he is a Gooner is nice, but such sentiment will have little bearing on the decision. Jesus is the younger player and arguably moving into the peak years of his career (he's only just turned 25), as well as being someone Arteta and Edu both know well from their time at City and Brazil respectively. Anyway, it would certainly prompt hilarity when Ramsdale gets a straight red from Michael Oliver for farting and the new boy has to go in goal.

In summary, it has been a season of both promise and disappointment, though the latter is largely a consequence of the former. My prediction after that horrendous opening was that we would recover and steadily march towards sixth. What I didn't predict, but perhaps should have, was that our course would be more erratic than steady. What I'm really hoping for next season is not only a further improvement on our league position, and perhaps some better runs in the cups, now that we've got three to compete for, but a calmer, more reliable progress. I've enjoyed the highs - the home defeat of Spurs, the away win at Chelsea, the victory over Machester United - but the lows have been pretty horrible. I can put up with games we lose but compete in, such as the undeserved home defeat to a very fortunate Manchester City, but our continuing tendency to screw up in away games against very modest and umabitious opponents is maddening (in the loss to Southampton, we had 76% possession and managed 23 shots - only 6 on target). It's a tired cliché (because there's no smoke without fire, you know) but what we really need is consistency. The real mark of progress will be when opposing fans start singing "Boring, boring Arsenal" again.