Saturday, 21 December 2019

The Beverage Report

The claims come thick and fast: Labour is losing the support of the working class; the condescending liberal elite do not understand the people; the left despises the patriotism that ordinary folk imbibe with their mother's milk. These same claims have been made for over a century now. The essential argument is that socialism is foreign to native good sense, which stands in a longer tradition of scepticism about all things continental that runs from the English Reformation through the Napoleonic Wars to Brexit. The relative prominence of these claims over the last hundred years has owed more to fluctuating electoral fortune than to sociological reality, hence the current clamour is of a volume similar to the early 1930s and early 1980s. This doesn't mean that the claims should be ignored, that Labourites should simply wait for the inevitable uptick in the manner of 1945 and 1997, but it is worth understanding the political utility of these assertions before addressing the social reality.

British political parties are coalitions of interest. While those interests may roughly correlate with actual social groups, such as trade unionists or pensioners, they are also articulated through emblematic identities that serve as shorthand for wider social and economic preferences, such as "Workington man" or "the liberal elite". There is obviously a grain a truth in these emblems, but instead of focusing on the material interests that drive their preferences - for example, the different expectations of Cumbrian retirees versus metropolitan lawyers - the identities are often flattened into caricature, hence the absurdity of hot beverages as a signifier of a particular worldview. These caricatures serve multiple ideological purposes: defining the "real people" and marginalising dissenters as inauthentic; framing society as a set of marketing segments for whom politics is a series of retail offers; and promoting a hierarchical field of study in which the mass are only dimly self-aware and political scientists are prescriptive.

The most coarse-grained of these caricatures is the idea of a working class that is wholly defined by an indigenous culture rather than its relations to the means of production. That culture as presented through the media is predominantly white, male and socially conservative, which makes it both suspicious of difference - i.e. the racial and sexual diversity of the actual working class as much as foreign notions - and vulnerable to the attraction of reactionary values, from maudlin patriotism to the condign punishment of the antisocial. The role of the state, the working environment and the media in shaping that culture is well known, and the mechanics of value formation extensively studied, however this knowledge is replaced by strategic ignorance whenever the caricature is deployed in political discourse. This leads to both misrepresentation of the actual working class and a refusal to question how such representations arise and are maintained.

The current Labour leadership contest has barely begun but we already see this tendency towards caricature in a heightened form. One reason this has happened so quickly is that accentuating the heterogeneity of the coalition at a time of dispute over whose interests should predominate leads to emphasising the homogeneity of the separate groups. You are either exclusively chalk or exclusively cheese; of the North or of North London. It is no coincidence that so much emphasis is being placed on the candidates' "backstories" by the media, ably assisted by politicians who often have little more than a backstory to offer. This is not just journalistic laziness, or even a telling judgement on the lack of substantive policy difference, but a way to emphasise the importance of authenticity. The other dominant journalistic trope is the candidates' associations with "foreign" thought, whether that be traditional smears about pro-Russian sympathies or the more voguish "anti-Westernism", which conveniently elides into the charge of antisemitism.

The enemies of Labour, which includes not only direct political opponents but those who believe the party should be broken up and recombined with outside elements, such as those advocating a new centrist formation or insisting that Labour must forge an alliance with the Liberal Democrats and Greens, will not only criticise the party through the vector of its supposedly irreconcilable cultures but will also seek to divide it structurally. The Labour party's history is one of both internal division, such as in 1931 and 1981, and repeated attempts by its enemies to divide it from without, such as the detachment of the unions (attempted both by Conservative governments and its own New Labour "reformers") and the recent alienation of affiliated groups such as the Jewish Labour Movement. This focus on the institutional gives rise to bureaucratic identities.

The Labour's left proceduralism (it's focus on elections to the NEC and control of the manifesto) is a reflection of its liberal heritage of electoral activism and wordy aspiration more than its lust for power, while the Labour right's love of purges and stitch-ups ironically shows where the real Stalinist legacy is to be found. Nothing was more typical of Jeremy Corbyn's personal ethos than his willingness to indulge members of the PLP who persistently undermined him throughout his tenure, many of them ridiculing him for his "weakness". The angry denunciation of Corbyn by some of his own MPs this week was performative, intended to assert the PLP's authenticity and authority in what looks like another turn in the permanent coup that has been running since 2016, ahead of a leadership contest in which the party right, which seems to be investing its hopes in the "charisma" of Jess Phillips, will probably struggle.

This bilious festival produced the irony of party princelings, like Stephen Kinnock, and members of the actual North London elite, such as the former Islington councillor Mary Creagh, who was parachuted into the once-safe seat of Wakefield in 2005, complaining about Labour's inability to connect with voters in the North and Midlands. The attitude is petulant, but it goes beyond mere entitlement to dovetail into a wider establishment judgement on the impossibility of left politics. Of course, arguing that nationalisation is always wrong or that inequality is a price we should be happy to pay for the tax receipts of bankers isn't going to work on any doorstep these days, so the caricature of "fruit tea" must serve. Likewise, journalists demanding the sacking of apparatchiks like Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy, or the marginalisation of media outriders like Owen Jones or Ash Sarkar, are not just conducting a campaign of bullying but an auto da fé.

The social reality of Labour's support is that it tends towards the young and the cities, which is another way of saying that it reflects the modern working class. The caricatures of the metropolitan latte-drinking elite and the antique monoculture eulogised by the likes of Blue Labour are deployed to obscure the evolution of the class, the one serving to trivialise the changes in work brought about by new technology, the other seeking to revive a social formation that has dwindling relevance. The debate over Northern towns, which should really be a discussion about economic geography, has predictably been reduced to a contest of "values" in which both of these caricatures feature prominently. The paradox of this debate is that the working class is portrayed as simultaneously monolithic and fundamentally fragmented. The reality is flux: labour is being ceaselessly reconstituted by capital.

The great structural advantage that the Tories have is not the enthusiastic support of the press or the connivance of the BBC but the cultural hegemony of a particular expression of the middle class: anti-intellectual, xenosceptic and prone to a Burkean pessimism. It is this that allows the Conservative Party to obscure its own coalition in which capital dominates, presenting instead a politics of "common sense", reactionary grievance and the fetishisation of the "apolitical" state in the form of the monarchy and armed forces. In reality, this hegemony is under assault from capital and its contradictions: the expansion of tertiary education, the globalisation of culture and the inadequacy of pessimism in the face of a potential climate catastrophe. Labour needs to work with the grain of history, not retreat to a nostalgic yesterday, whether that be 1945 or 1997. Chai latte may not be everyone's cup of tea, but that, rather than chimps drinking PG Tips, is a better guide to what the future looks like.

Saturday, 14 December 2019


The general election has changed the political landscape in three ways. First, the remain cause is now dead. The metropolitan professional classes and pro-EU elements of British industry will make peace with the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats will face a funding crisis and may also see a pushback by activists against the Orange Bookers. Second, the Labour left has been checked. However, the idea that the right will now recapture the party and purge the left (in particular Momentum) is implausible, given the attitudes of the membership and the unions. There is more likely to be a rapid (and frankly overdue) evolution in the left itself. The passing of Corbyn and McDonnell is not just generational; it will probably mark a shift from electoralism to a broader social movement, which will inevitably play to the strengths of the left and exacerbate the weaknesses of the right. David Miliband isn't coming back. Third, the Union will be changed irrevocably. At the very least, Northern Ireland will become semi-detached and mentally closer to unification with the Republic. Full Scottish independence may not be any more likely than it was in 2014, but it's hard to see the current constitutional relationship surviving the next five years unchanged.

A number of political commentators have claimed that the scale of the Conservative majority means that Boris Johnson can and will govern from the centre, marginalising the party's right on social and economic policy and the ERG on Europe. This is unlikely. The Tories have decisively shifted to the right both in terms of membership and the composition of the parliamentary party. Brexit will grind on for years and there is no desire to open up another opportunity for Nigel Farage on the party's flank. I think we can be confident that the Tories will govern from the right for the next five years. Ironically, it would be in their interest to keep Brexit running as a live issue, in the form of tantalisingly close new trade deals and complaints about the EU's intransigence. For their part, the EU27 are unlikely to change their strategy, which means they will leverage the British desire for a quick trade deal in 2020 to pursue their own interests in areas such as fisheries and regulatory alignment. The result will either be a rupture leading to a damaging, minimalist deal or a further extension to the transition period.

The related idea that the Tories will have to offer more generous social policies and state-led economic stimulus because of the interests of their new "blue collar" seats in the North and Midlands is also dubious, just as it was in 1983 when they first won Darlington and Birmingham Northfield. It ignores that the Tories haven't won over lots of former Labour voters committed to state intervention so much as consolidated the reactionary vote and suppressed Labour's turnout through their relentless focus on Brexit. Their new voting bloc isn't going to be demanding the abolition of Universal Credit or the revival of the steel industry. What we can expect are gestures towards areas of vulnerability like the NHS, but these will be very much in the style of the pledge of 40 new hospitals that turned out to be merely 6 refurbs. Given the reactionary nature of this voting bloc, there will probably be more culture war initiatives than fiscal stimulus, hence the enthusiastic backing of the likes of Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins.

There are two fundamental reasons being offered for Labour's defeat: Brexit and Corbyn. We can say with confidence that the former was decisive for two reasons. First, the Tories were never less than clear that "Get Brexit done" was their sole substantial offer, and they proved correct in their assumption that their remain-supporting voters would mostly stay loyal whereas enough Labour leavers would defect or abstain to swing target seats. Second, the Conservative Party vote share since Cameron's decision to commit to a referendum on the EU has gone up in each election. While 2017 was a failure for Theresa May, she actually increased the Tory vote by a substantial 5 points to 42%, despite her all too apparent limitations as a campaigner and the self-inflicted wound of the "dementia tax". Johnson has now inched that up to just under 44%. Given the 36% level of support for the Tories in the first half of the decade and the party's monomania in the second half, it seems reasonable to conclude that 8% of the vote is attributable to Brexit and that this was decisive.

The claim that Labour lost chiefly because of Corbyn has merit only if you believe that charismatic, credible leaders really make that much of a difference. For centrists this is an article of faith, hence the emotional investment in the likes of Blair, Macron and Trudeau, not to mention 2010's "Cleggmania". But the reality is that leaders make little difference, as Jo Swinson has now discovered. Electors may cite negative or positive qualities in a party leader, but these seem to be largely post-hoc rationalisations of more fundamental sympathies, hence the nebulous "Don't like the man" comments about Corbyn, which rarely coalesced into anything more substantial on doorsteps than his supposed support for terrorism. Likewise, centrists who still insist that Corbyn personally lost the 2016 referendum remain in denial about their own culpability. The most obvious counter to the claim that elections are won or lost by the skill or virtue of party leaders is that the country has just elected as Prime Minister a man who spent the campaign comically avoiding scrutiny, unashamedly lying and generally proving to be a moral void.

The criticism of Labour's manifesto as being too busy, too focused on "giveaways" and inadequately heralded over the last two years does have merit. It was inspiring but not sufficiently persuasive. As James Butler noted, "it was a document presented as if to allies, rather than to a sceptical electorate uneasy with its trust". This highlights both the slow progress of the left in achieving hegemony beyond the party over the last four years, beset as it was by wreckers and bad faith arguments around antisemitism and Brexit, and its own crippling proceduralism - the belief that conquering the manifesto was a victory in itself. However, much of the criticism directed at the manifesto on tactical grounds is clearly antipathetic to its scope and ambition. The jibes at "broadband communism" revealed a belief that any attempt to empower people through public services would be met with incredulity by the electorate. That may not be wrong today, but it is a damning indictment of the political imagination of the country that such a modest proposal was considered incredible.

The funk of the political centre in England and Wales continues. The Liberal Democrats improved on their vote share but ended up with a net loss of one seat and another broken leader. That 4-point gain will have been a mixture of protest votes and tactical votes, but the hopes of the party that this would lead them to picking up Conservative-held seats in heavily pro-remain areas proved illusory. In the event, their signal contribution was to tip Kensington back to the Tories, an emblematically awful outcome to a deceitful campaign. The remnants of Change UK were predictably swept away, as were the Tory independents, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke. One lesson we should take from this is that the priorities and interests of the liberal media are not those of the electorate, but to judge by the speed with which old Blairites infested the TV studios on Thursday night there will be no change in behaviour. Until the centre comes to terms with the causes of 2008 and admits its error over austerity, it will fail to develop a distinctive case against either left or right that goes beyond hysterical virtue.

Though election post mortems inevitably focus on the altered prospects for parties and the termination of once-promising careers, perhaps the most notable casualty of this one has been the BBC. That the Tories felt sufficiently emboldened to raise the prospect of abolishing the licence fee during a campaign where they otherwise avoided either hostages to fortune or controversial kite-flying is telling. That the corporation was so defensive in response to criticism that its "human errors" consistently favoured one party was equally revealing. Beyond the structural bias that the BBC displays in its deferential treatment of the government of the day, it is clearly terrified of the Tories, and probably with good reason. For many Conservatives Auntie is one of the last remaining bastions of collectivism in society. While the NHS can be gradually sliced and diced until little more than the logo remains public property, the corporation can only be satisfactorily reformed by market logic when the prop of the licence fee is removed. Given its parliamentary majority, and the likely demand for culture war scalps as Brexit continues to confound, I suspect the Johnson administration may well do the deed.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

It's Up For Grabs Now

We have entered the final straight of the general election campaign, which means the media will shortly be awash with statements about "Why I won't be voting Labour this time". As usual, some of the naysayers will be people who only voted for the party once, probably in 1997, and a few will only have cast a ballot in their minds. Many will be habitual Conservative or Liberal Democrat voters who insist that they are non-partisan, rational centrists, open to persuasion. It's just that they are persuaded not to vote for Labour in this election, just as they were in 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2017. Naturally, they will have ventured different reasons on each occasion, from civil liberties through fiscal responsibility to eating a bacon sandwich in an funny manner. This is the op-ed equivalent of the focus groups made up of "former Labour voters" where every one of the white, middle-aged sample turns out to be a committed Tory with a fixation on immigration, the inviolability of the monarchy and Trident missiles.

There will be some "lifelong supporters" who have converted - voter churn is a real thing, after all - but they will typically be of an age and social milieu where such a transition is quite normal. A middle-aged, metropolitan journalist who has recently started to wonder whether to educate their children privately is both the preferred profile for recruitment as a commentator by our newspapers and TV channels and representative of precisely the social cohort most likely to decide that their future material interest is best served by a Conservative government, even if they still insist that they are really a progressive at heart. Their self-justification will obviously ignore a demographic or sociological interpretation in favour of a dark night of the soul narrative in which they have regretfully decided that "It's not me, it's you". Words such as "betrayal" and "unconscionable" will inevitably figure.

One of the funnier examples of the species this time round was provided by Richard Evans, the historian of the Third Reich, who initially broadcast his intention to vote for Labour on Twitter and then rowed back when Anthony Julius among others criticised his lack of solidarity with Jews over the issue of antisemitism in a letter to the New Statesman. To make full amends, Evans has now contributed a piece to the same magazine in which he both commends Labour's manifesto and insists that Jeremy Corbyn must immediately resign upon his inevitable defeat next week. The mental gymnastics on display would not have looked out of place in a Soviet show-trial. The New Statesman, to nobody's great surprise, has refused to endorse Labour, essentially because of Corbyn, which goes a long way to explain its omission from the "hard-left extremist network" recently published by the Sun to widespread derision.

The red scare story that has garnered the most attention this time round is the claim that the government report on trade discussions with the US was leaked as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. Nobody has questioned the authenticity of the document, while even challenges to the veracity of Labour's claims have centred on pedantic nit-picking over whether actual hospitals are to be sold off. Instead the media has decided as one that the party made an error in using material that might have reached the public domain via the efforts of an "adversary nation", which is a bizarre charge for an industry reliant on leaks and stories placed to damage political and commercial opponents. What's remarkable is not just the thin gruel of the complaint, but the utter determination to make the story about Labour's judgement and questionable associations at a time when the evidence of how compromised the Conservative Party has become through its dealings with various Russian oligarchs is freely available despite the government's suppression of the Parliamentary report on the subject.

One feature of the election that is novel, at least in the belief that it really will make a difference this time, is the focus on tactical voting. Of course, a lot of this has turned out to be nothing more than a ramp to advance the Liberal Democrats' representation in the Commons, or to encourage those forces considered helpful in the long war against the Labour left, such as the SNP in Scotland. The liberal media focus on select London constituencies, which is clearly intended to save the political careers of favoured sons and daughters such as Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Sam Gyimah, has probably served to turn off quite a few voters in other parts of the country who were prepared to cast their ballot tactically, and has certainly distracted from those Labour-Conservative marginals where an anti-Tory vote really will matter. Instead, semi-rural seats such as Bishop Auckland, where the Tories have always had a substantial vote, continue to be analysed in terms of ex-miners and their whippets abandoning the party of the workers.

Despite the Liberal Democrats' best efforts to convince us that the precedent for this contest was the 37% turnout European Parliament elections in May, most observers have focused instead on 2017 as the benchmark. For much of the media, this is because they fervently desire a result that will consign the election two years ago to the bin marked "anomaly". The through-gritted-teeth mea culpas of the weeks following that result cannot be unwritten, but they can now be superseded by the inevitable "I was right all along" think-pieces that have been in preparation for months. The dream of a hung parliament, in which Labour loses seats and Keir Starmer magically takes over as leader, probably isn't going to happen. Though Labour is closing the gap, the solidity of the "Get Brexit done" phalanx means that a small Tory majority remains more likely. The danger is that 2019 turns out to be a repeat of 2015, when the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote coupled with the disaffection of too many Labour supporters gifted the Conservatives under Cameron a large majority and set in train the sequence of events that led to the 2016 EU Referendum.

If there has been one defining characteristic of our politics over the last decade it is not the right's contempt for truth or the left's crippling caution but the political centre's utter incompetence. From the failure to challenge austerity, through the inept EU Referendum campaign, to the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, we have seen ample evidence that our corporate-friendly technocrats are simply clueless. The last three years have been devoted to the self-defeating and self-indulgent inanities of the People's Vote campaign, while the attempt to finally kill off Labour through the risible charge of institutional antisemitism and launch "a new kind of politics" produced the policy-free, vainglorious farce of Change UK. With this in mind, my fear is that the result on Thursday will be another own-goal in which the Liberal Democrats will distinguish themselves by handing more seats to the Tories than they manage to take while the conniving media will insist that it was Corbyn who put Johnson into Number 10.

Reasons to be cheerful include the fact that a lot of people clearly haven't made their mind up yet as to how they will vote. As there can't be too many people still not sure of their attitude to the antisemitism charge, or to the claims that Corbyn and his Stalinist inner circle are secretly in league with Russia, there is good reason to think that the undecideds may veer towards Labour as the messaging in the home straight is reduced down to the relative merits of "Change" and "Brexit". One factor that hasn't received as much attention as tactical voting is differential turnout, and there are grounds to think that it's the hope for change that will be a more effective motivator on the day than the weary desire to never have to hear about Brexit ever again, not least among the young who have registered in greater numbers ahead of this poll than in 2017. Perhaps the much-anticipated youthquake will finally put in a decisive appearance. Here's hoping.