Saturday, 3 October 2015

The Tories' Trade Union Turn

As audacious tank-parking goes, the Conservatives' announcement that they're (re)launching their own trade union movement is right up there. It has certainly raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. There will activists across the spectrum who looked up and saw question marks materialise above their heads. Haven't the Tories proven themselves consistently anti-trade union? Aren't they about to saddle the labour movement with the most restrictive strike laws of any advanced Western nation? And do they not fulminate at the thought of workers banding together to improve their lot in the workplace? Isn't it, at best, just a stunt and, at worse, an exercise to burn off that excess hedge fund cash?

According to Robert Halfon, self-professed "proud trade unionist" and one of the few relatively reasonable Tories who take their One Nation nonsense seriously, his 'Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists' movement will “provide a voice for Conservative-minded trade unionists and moderate trade unionists”. He goes on:
“We are recreating the Conservative trade union workers’ movement. There will be a new website and people will be able to join. There will be a voice for moderate trade unionists who feel they may have sympathy with the Conservatives or even just feel that they’re not being represented by militant trade union leaders.”
This is part and parcel of the Tories' blue collar turn. While Labour is the party of the bloated social security budget, it is the Conservatives who are standing up for working people. We may have guffawed when they started dubbing themselves 'the workers' party' and 'Britain's trade union', but it is a very conscious and serious repositioning by them. They know very well that the party is hated and are facing continued long-term decline (though this might not affect their ability to win again, at least in the medium term). They are also aware that what hurts them the most is the popular perception of being in the pocket of finance and big business. This doesn't handicap them in the way it could thanks to the lack of interest the print and broadcast media have in such things. It's the way of the world, innit?. And so, we have the Tory trade union movement. The rebranding of the minimum wage and its large increase - even though many who get by with the support of tax credits stand to lose. The specious hype of Osborne's "northern powerhouse", and the Tories' decision to hold their conference ooop north on a regular basis.

On the rebranding, can it work? Well, to a certain extent, it already has. They were able to sneak an overall majority in May for a number of reasons, but key was the stirring up fear and resentment. Part of this preyed on a negative affirmation of class identities. The 'I-have-to-go-to-work-so-everyone-else-should' syndrome that is oft-mobilised in support of benefit-bashing, and has proved an especially potent political device. Expect to see it deployed more regularly now the new Labour leadership has (rightly) set its face against the demonisation of social security recipients.

Therefore I am neither dismissive of the possible efficacy Halfon's initiative can have for the Tories. I also think, in a way, that it's a positive development.

No, your eyes do not deceive you. Firstly, what Halfon is doing is setting up a parallel organisation of trade unionists. He's not foolish enough to be setting up a rival TUC for Tory-minded trade union members only. Were that the case it would be doomed to fail. Secondly, readers would do well to remember that while class can be and is (for some) fodder for an identity, it is everywhere and always a structural location. Not in the sense of the Registrar General's income/occupation groups, nor the cringe worthy simplisms of vulgar Marxists and post-Marxists, but the obvious fact that the majority in this country have to sell their labour power - whatever that may entail - in return for a wage or salary. That the labour movement exists and articulates a set of values of a broad type is a product of two centuries worth of experience, of organising wage/salary earners against employers. It follows that anyone identifying working people with a set of values and politics have it the wrong way round. A Tory worker isn't "scum" or a "sell-out", nor are they a pod person programmed by the right wing media. They merely have views that makes sense from the point of view of their individual life experience. They are - and there are many millions of them - at odds with the conclusions drawn, generally speaking, by the labour movement as a collective. Yet workers of hand and/or by brain they are, and as such they have interests like every other worker. Indeed some, like Margaret Thatcher, Norman Tebbit, and our friend Robert Halfon, groped towards this realisation and joined the labour movement as active Tories and trade unionists.

The Tories are not exactly overflowing with members - just see the miserably low numbers participating in their mayoral selection - but it will attract a few odds and sods, and should the labour movement revive more are bound to wash up on its shores. It will flush out come quiet Tories too. Nevertheless, some on the left are bound to identify it as a Trojan horse within our movement, a (I don't think terribly effective) means of disseminating alien values among trade unionists. As if we're not already subjected to them every time we turn the telly or computer on, or open a paper or magazine. However, social processes always modify and change those caught up in them. It would be foolish to suggest that a Tory workers' association is going to introduce the blue party to the virtues of solidarity and collectivism, but it opens up another avenue of contradiction. Were Halfon's band to become a big deal within the party - improbable, but not impossible - it might under certain circumstances stay the Tories' hand on future attacks on organised labour and/or rights at work. The contradictory location could also, on occasion, put Tory trade unionists on the spot. Activists may have to choose between trade union activity and Tory affiliation, especially when the party is colliding with sections of workers. And that, ultimately, shows up the irreconcilable character of our interests versus theirs.

For our own reasons, we should welcome the prospect of the Tories attaching a labour movement assemblage to them, however detached and problematic that organisation might be.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Kiesza - Giant In My Heart

All blogged out, so let's have a tune. This was missing from the top 10 tunes of 2014. An error with 'unforgivable' written over it if there ever was one.

Five Most Popular Posts in September

September's most-read five were ...

1. Lessons of the Labour Leadership Campaigns
2. A Note on Jeremy Corbyn and Panorama
3. Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Jez
4. Sociology Meets Piggate
5. Jeremy Corbyn and the European Union

If it wasn't for revelations of a porcine character, Jezmania would have made a straight sweep of this month's rankings. Though interestingly, it was the review of each of the leadership campaigns that pulled down the numbers. Proof that the (relatively) serious and long-winded can do the business when required. And this is probably how it will be forever now. Jeremy is here to stay, he'll never be out of the spotlight, and so there's always going to be a need to write about him. Perhaps I should rename the blog Critical Corbyn Studies.

What should I dredge up for a second airing? Well there's this one about UKIP and their struggle to stay relevant in the "new politics". And I think my take on the John McDonnell speech needs looking at, as practically the entire paid-for commentariat have misunderstood it.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

A Note on Jeremy Corbyn's Conference Speech

The tradition in recent years is for the shadow chancellor and the leader's speech to be taken as a piece. The former deals with the technical fiddly bits of economic policy, while the latter is about the wider vision. Cometh the new politics and the old set up remains. Yesterday John McDonnell gave a strong speech setting out clearly and unambiguously Labour's line of travel. Speaking as a sceptic, as far as I was concerned it ticked the boxes marked 'politically smart' and 'eminently sensible', while remaining consistent with Labour's explicit turn to social justice and, gasp, socialism. With half the job done, would Jeremy also deliver?

Well, it very much depends on who you ask. Professional Corbyn critic John McTernan thought it the "worst political speech I have ever heard by some distance." Hyperbole much. A more honest and thoughtful contribution from the right of the party comes from Wes Streeting, who said, "many things to cheer in Jeremy's speech but it was the tone on debate that was most refreshing. Test will be how it played outside the Party." Yes, Wes is right.

I liked Jeremy's speech. I don't care that it was rambling in places and a touch repetitive. Give me that any day over stilted sound bites, zero passion, wonkish wonkery, and monochrome monotone delivery. He spoke the truth about austerity. The truth about the Tories. And the truth of what the Labour Party should be about. Before Jeremy, if one is being honest you had to comb the ex-leader's speech and glom the good things hidden amid the delphic passages and commitment to things counterproductive to the party's own health. Not this time.

I did enjoy Jeremy's speech, but it wasn't as outward facing as John's was. I liked it because I'm a Labour person and a socialist. I want to overcome my scepticism and reticence. I want to believe. This speech was aimed at unifying the party and the movement, which I think it largely managed to do - McTernanites notwithstanding. Labour supporters in the country too would have been cheered. Odds and sods flirting with anti-politics probably heard things they liked to hear. But this wasn't a speech designed to win over swing voters leaning toward the blues. This was a base speech, one setting out to consolidate party and movement by setting out Labour's stall.

Is that really a problem? No. The key thing a leader must do is define themselves early on. This is what Ed Miliband didn't do after his victory five years ago. During the contest he'd tacked to the (soft) left, and immediately afterward tacked (soft) right, and this was to characterise his leadership right up to the general election. It was a strategic approach, if it can be called that, Andy Burnham borrowed during this summer's contest with disastrous results.

The sort of speech given today only becomes an issue if this is the tone Labour adopts forever more. Which is not very likely to be the case. If this was the 2019 party conference and Jeremy had said all this and nothing else, then the doomsayers would be entitled to their doomsaying. But it's not. The speech may not have won over large numbers of voters in swathes of swing seats, but at this stage it doesn't really need to. There's a long time between now and next May's round of elections. Appeals to the so-called middle would be long forgotten by then, and an opportunity to strengthen our party and movement now, lost. In all, Jeremy did what he needed to do, and did so with a touch of aplomb.

Monday, 28 September 2015

On John McDonnell's Shadow Chancellor's Speech

There is a tendency by lobby hacks to treat John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn as Austen-authored debutantes facing their first showing in Society. Not yet worldly wise, they require deft chaperoning to sidestep the depredations of the rakish and dastardly Mr Osborne. Their present situation demands careful schooling to avoid unknowing breaches of etiquette, such as not rendering the wealthy-but-distant Uncle Rupert the requisite respect. And at all times, attention has to be paid to one's countenance to avoid panicking the horses tethered in the Middle England stables. Alas, the real naifs of the piece are our media friends. Jez and John are not wide-eyed innocents with little feel for the world. It might only be now they're leading the ball, but for decades, in the political backrooms and kitchens they have mixed with the people "below stairs", and looked on. Their familiarity with the airs and the graces cannot match those of the princelings, but they have something else: decades of experience in the rough and tumble of Labour left and labour movement politics. They know the game well, but from a different perspective. This alien land, however, is invisible to the press pack, and explains why so many of them were caught on the hop by John's shadow chancellor's speech at Labour Party conference earlier today. Were they really expecting him to commit Labour to a programme legislating for full communism?

Their surprise says a great deal about their pitiful quality and shallow social roots. On the other hand, it suggests good things where our new leadership's political nous is concerned. As we know, Jeremy's opponents have a history of underestimating him, but even they should realise by now that Jez and John are neither stupid or naive. The way to really grab attention is to confound expectations, and this is what today's speech did. We noted the other day that Labour still has a mountain to climb when it comes to perceptions of economic competence. It's all about the economy or, rather, the sense of self-security - a point the Tories have long cottoned-on to. And, pleasingly, the speech set out a strategy that could wrest "credibility" from George Osborne's incompetent stewardship.

The likes of Thomas Piketty and Ann Pettifor are hardly household names, but for people looking askance at the Labour Party during conference would have heard the phrases 'leading economic thinkers' and 'specialist knowledge', and how the party plans to draw on them to develop policy. They may also have picked up on John's 'test, test, and test again' mantra before any idea makes it through to policy. And he makes the not unreasonable demand, following Ed Balls, that Labour be given access to the OBR, Bank of England, and Treasury wonks to test the feasibility of policy ideas. Osborne and Dave, of course, are not going to allow that to happen because the sorts of policies the panel favour are hardly likely to break capitalism. It could, in fact, give it a boost.

Similarly with the second part of John's big reveal. Labour is pledged to live "within our means". Yes, in the context of the relationship between the state and the economy this is a nonsense. Unfortunately, because many of these arguments were given a free pass by the 2010 Labour leadership contest and the early days of Ed Miliband, the Tories audaciously but successfully linked the global economic crash to non-existent public spending profligacy on the part of the last Labour government. There appears to be some confusion whether John will endorse Osborne's commitment to turn in a government surplus, albeit by other means, but either way some of the fog of policy war has been lifted. John is seeking to annex economic efficiency for the left, and is doing so by accepting Osborne's premise to use it as a stick to beat him with. Forget what you've so far read about Osborne, he might be "intensely political" but a genius he is not. The budget surplus was a trap for Labour's ancien regime, and designed to bring out the contradictions of its formal anti-austerity but actually austerity-lite programme. Instead of casting aspersions on the Tories' miserable mishandling of the deficit and debt, as well as fingers-crossed-and-hope-for-the-best approach to Britain;'s economy, John is threatening to turn the tables and hold the Conservatives feet to a fire of their own making. A lot of things can happen in five years, but eliminating the deficit and turning in a surplus on the basis of idiotic cuts to government spending in unlikely to be one of them.

Labour have got to play the long game, but rather than offering smoke and mirrors John has clearly set out a direction of travel and a plan to hold the Tories' economic record to account. It's the approach Ed Balls toyed with when he ran for leader, and promptly abandoned upon assuming the shadow chancellor's office. That won't happen this time. And, you know what, it might just work.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Crash Bandicoot for the PlayStation

There was a time where new systems needed a whole stable of video game characters to give them that edge over the rivals. In the fourth generation (16-bit) era of games consoles, Nintendo and Sega came out on top partly because each had established a following for their big guns. Nintendo had Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and a range of more minor exclusives to hand. Sega retaliated with Sonic the Hedgehog and a pantheon of titles based around their arcade properties, or built from scratch as a me-tooism. Part of the reason why so many industry pundits bet against Sony to begin with was a) their forays into video game development up until that time, which included the release of some truly awful games on the SNES and MegaDrive, and b) their lack of what we now call unique intellectual properties, or IPs. Sure, they had Namco in their corner and could look forward to Ridge Racer and Tekken conversions, as well as ports of popular PC titles, but before Sony steam rollered their opposition it made a concerted effort to ensure the PlayStation was home to the best and most sought after exclusives.

This is where Crash comes in. Whereas Sega and Nintendo touched off the mascot arms race, virtually every software house tried getting in on the act. Between 1988 and 1995, practically every software house in the field had tried their hand at mascot video games. Ubisoft - Rayman. Accolade - Bubsy the Bobcat. Gremlin - Zool. Ocean - Mr Nutz. Core - Chuck Rock. Codemasters - Dizzy. Some did alright, but most fell by the wayside and are remembered without affection by gamers of a certain age who've since moved on to other things. Whether developers Naughty Dog (they of Uncharted and The Last of Us fame) thought they were creating Sony's answer to Mario and Sonic for them knew or not, they were nevertheless treading a well-worn path. And Crash was every inch a 90s bandicoot. His character style was zany, as opposed to Mario's stolid dependability and Sonic's ice cool. He cut a countenance that was slightly unhinged - there's a look of panic on Crash's face has he runs toward the screen as the game opens. But it comes with a knowing sensibility as well. Prior to leaping on the back of a boar in the two hog run levels, Crash looks over his shoulders and his eyebrows start twitching as if something improper is about to happen (NB this was a full 19 years before those David Cameron allegations surfaced). You'd also be hard pressed to classify Crash or any of his allies and adversaries as cute. Rather, despite his marsupial origins, Crash has something of a simian gait about his person. He wears nothing but blue shorts and trainers. In other words, our Crash was an anthropomorphic every man who didn't realise the body projections of the teenage boys likely to buy the game, but in some way embodied their ungainly awkwardness with a dash of 90's adolescent attitude.

Shadows cast by Crash's predecessors didn't end there. His spin attack was lifted directly from the Tasmanian Devil (who'd also had two outings on the MegaDrive prior to Crash). His collectible was wumpa fruit - as opposed to coins or rings - that yielded an extra life once a hundred of them were gathered up. Smashing open crates yields them and other goodies, like the masks of Aku Aku that protects Crash from the usual instant death one can expect when colliding with an enemy; or the tokens of his love interest, Tawna, that can transport him to increasingly challenging bonus rounds. And, of course, as the hegemonic game form during the 16-bit era was the platformer, so Naughty Dog's response had to be the same. However, the job of any mascot worth their salt is to showcase the capabilities of the machine it's running on, and Crash did that in spades. The first level has you taking a leisurely 3D stroll down a jungle path. Later levels involve tricky action from the same perspective. Not only was this novel as Crash would have been many gamers' first experience of 3D platforming, it was a completely new gameplaying experience. Naughty Dog, however, had the nous to ease their audience in. Visually arresting 3D levels were broken up with tradition two-dimensional stages. And sometimes they messed with the gamer by introducing 2.5D elements, and mixing 2D and 3D platforming. It demonstrated the PlayStation's raw power advantage over its clunk-looking predecessors, and pointed to the direction gaming was set to subsequently go.

Despite all that, Crash was something of a simple affair. It certainly didn't possess the depth of Super Mario 64, which hit the shelves a few months prior. In this sense, it was the heir to Sonic. While Mario had always prided itself on original game design, elaborate puzzles, and a huge number of secrets to uncover, Sonic was more an A-to-B (at speed) sort of game. Sega did hide a few secrets of their own, and had from the off experimented with multiple routes from start to exit. This is Crash's style, except more linear. There are a few hidden areas where goodies can be found. And bits of levels can be unlocked by collecting gems as you go (you're awarded one if you get through a level having smashed all the crates and without losing a life). If you want to get the "secret" ending, pursuing all the gems is exactly what you need to do. Sounds straight foward? It is, but it's also as tough as old boots. The 3D levels take some getting used to as judging distances with a fixed and not-always-entirely-helpful camera can lead to many needless deaths. There's something to be said for the control scheme as well. I don't know if it's me, but I had the same problems with the game as I did when I got my mitts on a copy 18 years back. Crash at times seems unwieldy and his control scheme over-sensitive. Contemporary gamers used to their thumb sticks would have a hard, frustrating time adapting. If that wasn't enough, some of the level designs are very challenging. Especially the 2D levels gamers of the mid-90s would have some familiarity with. The game isn't cheap, but if you don't take the time to observe the patterns, or learn how to control Crash properly the thing will eat you up. That probably explains why wumpa fruits and extra lives are so plentiful. Things don't seem quite frustrating when you still have 55 lives left in the bag.

There are a few other aspects about Crash that are of interest. The first is the game's naked orientalism. Set on three islands off Australia's coast, the first sees Crash doing battle against grass skirted natives. The first 2D level, Native Fortress, has you avoiding fire pits and spiky polls - as well as a few warriors - while you collect the fruit and make your way to the end. The first boss, Papu Papu, is a headdress-festooned big-bellied chief who fits no south sea islander stereotype at all. Using such locations might have seemed like a good idea at the time, especially as those levels bleed into subsequent tours of exotic-looking ruins (similar to a number of zones to have appeared in the Sonic games), but now one would hope it would be beyond the pail. Less controversial is a common trope in 90s video games: environmental despoliation and out-of-control science. Plenty of platform games mined this seam at the time, including Sonic, and it's something I'll be visiting in the future. Here, all of one's environmental fears find expression. The nemesis, Dr Neo Cortex (consciously modelled on Brain from Pinky and the Brain), is conducting genetic experiments to breed an army of animal soldiers - of which Crash is a result. As you move through the game, you come up against Cortex's other creations as end level bosses. Also, as the map makes pretty clear, your antagonist's mad sciencey efforts are pouring toxic waste into the sea and is threatening the beautiful environments of the levels you've just been through. It's not enough that Cortex is evil with the usual megalomaniacal schemes. He has to be a polluter, also. And a last word on the object of the game: this, like many other platformers, is yet another rescue-the-girl fetch quest. Except this time, Tawna is being kept by Cortex for unspecified observation and experimentation. Grim. However, it is worth noting that marketing objected to this premise and was dropped from future releases. If it was too tired for the mid-90s, why does it still occasionally rear its head now?

Unlike most PlayStation games (with the odd exception), and considering Crash Bandicoot is a relatively early PS1 title, it remains quite a good looking game by contemporary standards. Of course, graphically it doesn't hold a candle to your Super Mario 3D World and suchlike, but it has a certain vibrancy to it suggestive of craftmanship and care. It's a bold, brassy number just like the PlayStation itself. The luscious greens of the tropical levels, the flickering firelight of the caverns, the garish colour clashes of the industrial stages, they work together to crowd out the hard edged polygons characteristic of so many PlayStation games. There's little in the way of the characteristic PS1 flicker as well.

Crash was very well received and spawned sequels well into the succeeding generation of consoles, though now Naughty Dog have bigger fish to fry his IP has fallen into disuse. This is unsurprising because the games were very much of the interregnum between 2D and modern 3D gaming, and there is little more than the nostalgia some might feel that commends Crash's return to the gaming scene. Overall, an important game. A frustrating game. A rare looker of a game for the medium. But one that has more or less fallen into obscurity, and doesn't offer a great deal to warrant its rescuing.

What I've Been Reading Recently 2

Another episode in an occasional series. Since last time I've read:

I Married a Communist by Philip Roth
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
What is a Social Movement? by Hank Johnston
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
Old Goriot by Honoré de Balzac
A Confederate General from Big Sur by Richard Brautigan
Social Movements in Global Politics by David West
A Hazard of New Fortunes by Dean Howells
Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The Back Passage by James Lear
Strangers at the Gates by Sidney Tarrow
The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Social Movements and Social Classes by Louis Maheu (ed.)
Social Movements in an Age of Austerity by Donatella della Porta
Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Quarter Three Local By-Election Results 2015

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Q2
+/- Q2

* There were 14 by-elections in Scotland
** There were eight by-elections in Wales
*** There were two independent clashes
*** Others this month were SSP (97 & 117 & 81), Left Unity (32), Scottish Libertarian Party (17 & 12), Health Concern (167), Pirate Party (13), Orkney Manifesto Group (593), North East party (214), Mebyon Kernow (85), Scottish Christian (77 & 33), Llais Gwynedd (123), and Yorkshire First (124 & 115)

Overall, 119,462 votes were cast over 62 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. 12 council seats changed hands. For comparison see Quarter Two's results here.

As numbers recede to normal counts after the general election, the beach has been somewhat remoulded by the new political realities.  The Labour vote, despite the summer of leaderless ding-donging, held up quite well. Perhaps we can start saying a few things about the impact of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership by the time the Quarter Four election results come in. The SNP juggernaut, um, juggers on, though I will note turn out in Scottish by-elections are settling back down to normal levels. Can the SNP's incredible run, which sees them come third here in the popular vote, continue?

Also of interest is the overtaking of UKIP by the LibDems, which is pretty incredible when the press is cluttered up with nonsense about refugees and the EU referendum. For four months on the trot the yellows have trumped the purples. I have no liking for the LibDems but give me them over UKIP any day. Indeed, the Greens' strong performance saw them beat UKIP in one month of the last quarter. Let's hope their demise is not long coming.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Local Council By-Elections September 2015

Number of Candidates
Total Vote
+/- Aug

* There were three by-elections in Scotland
** There was one by-election in Wales
*** There was one independent clash
*** Others this month were SSP (97), Left Unity (32), Scottish Libertarian Party (17), Health Concern (167), and Yorkshire First (124)

Overall, 35,695 votes were cast over 17 local authority (tier one and tier two) contests. All percentages are rounded to the nearest single decimal place. Only one council seat changed hands. For comparison see August's results here.

If last month was an exception, what with the SNP easily cleaning up in the popular vote stakes, September represented a return to normality of sorts. Discounting Scotland - again - things south of the border are starting to look a bit, well, retro. Once again the LibDems have seen off the UKIP challenge despite running fewer candidates. If this carries on (it's four months now) we can perhaps start talking about a trend. The Greens also polled very strongly, though surely that cannot last now a good proportion of their activist base have been tempted away by Jezmania.

Speaking of the Labour Party, there's isn't much evidence our new leader is setting the polls alight. Then again, few things do where by-elections are concerned. But give it time. Already, Labour have half-inched a council seat in Scotland for the first time in ages - though it was the Greens who lost out (the SNP secured the other seat with a whopping lead in that particular two-seat contest). One thing can be said for sure. British politics is in its most agitated state ever, so expect more weirdness in the months ahead.