Friday, 22 May 2015

Stoke Politics After the Election

The good people of Stoke-on-Trent didn't take my advice. *Sigh*. If only more people listened to what I had to say, a lot of bother could be avoided. But on the day our party got a thumping, Stokies gave local Labour a kicking too. Rather than letting their local council vote be determined by their national choice, there was unprecedented ticket splitting, gifting us one of those lovely interpenetration of opposites politics so often throws up. They demonstrated an increasing sophistication on the part of the electorate, but did so by voting in Tories, a motley crew of independents and, shudder, UKIP. By the end of the local count on the Friday, Labour were left with 21 councillors. The City Independents on 14, the Tories seven, and UKIP two. A deal between Labour and any of the others was out of the question, so it was switcheroo time.

In truth, observers of the Stoke political scene should have seen a big hit coming. Rightly and wrongly, these last four years Labour has acquired a reputation for high-handed arrogance. It has made unpopular decisions that can't be reduced to Tory-mandated cuts, and every example of council incompetence, from housing benefit screw ups to crumbling concrete floors in the new civic centre, have been laid at its door. So deep is the antipathy that it's probably fair to say dissatisfaction with Labour locally hit the votes of each MP the city returned to Westminster.

There are lots of things Labour needs to do in Stoke if it hopes to win the Police and Crime Commissioner elections next year and retake the council in 2019. But I'm not going to talk about any of that. This post is about focusing on the new regime, a "combination of purple, black and blue, it's not so much a rainbow as a bruise", as John Woodhouse puts it.

I don't know if Guinness keep track of time taken for a party to break its manifesto promises, but the moment City Indie - and now council - leader Dave Conway picked up the phone to the Tories and UKIP, he dumped over one of their key promise scant seconds after the election result. As page four of their manifesto has it: "the City Independents will not consider allying with any other party or group or individuals as this would send out confusing and contradictory messages." I wouldn't want to suggest the remuneration package that comes with council portfolios had anything to do with the decision to dump a pledge: I'm sure it was all about the practicalities of keeping Labour out. That said, why make an undeliverable promise in the first place?

Whatever, no one will recall that four years hence. But what people may remember are some of the difficulties brewing around their promises. Nonsense about package tours with council-prescribed oatcake breakfasts and Staffordshire Hoard crockery is sure to make the cutting room floor. It's doubtful the tram system will get a look-in too, more's the pity. But first on the leader's desk is the ongoing saga of the Smithfield project, the attempt to kick start the development of a city centre business district. If the City Indies could wave a magic wand and return the site to a hole in the ground, they would. And, if reports are to be believed, that might actually happen. Rumours abound that the prefabricated concrete slabs that make up its flooring are, let's say, not of the requisite standard. By that I mean they're liable to crumble away in short order. This was a contractor, not a council fault but it may mean two buildings' worth of £60m might have to be demolished. Best hope those other more serious rumours that council officers did not build penalty clauses into the contract are untrue too. This no doubt will be flogged for all its worth over the next four years. However, if all that remains is a hole in the ground that can become a problem for Conway's coalition. Ask Bradford.

The next big one is economic development. Just because Dave's buddied up with some nice Tories doesn't mean the DCLG are going to look more fondly on Stoke-on-Trent. As we will find out in the emergency budget Osborne is convening in July to clean up the mess left by the previous government, anything outside the NHS, education, and overseas aid is going to be shaken down, and then some. Labour's approach was to manage the cuts as best they could, and use whatever was left to drive economic development. Whatever you might think of that strategy, I've seen more things built in Stoke these last five years than the previous 15. Labour wanted to offset the cuts by attracting more businesses and building more houses so rates and council tax could make up the shortfall. The City Indies agreed with regeneration but vociferously denounced the core/cluster strategy Labour pursued (i.e. trying to concentrate as many businesses and services in the city centre as possible), even though it is tried and tested in every other successful city. Well now they have the control, sooner or later they will find trying to spread council-led regeneration thinly has fewer benefits than they think.

Then there are the cuts. Having read the City Independents' pronouncements on cuts over the years, you could be forgiven for thinking they were all cooked up in Labour's regional office. Conway and friends are about to find out that's not the case. And here comes a very big problem for the coalition. The Indies don't like cuts and are nominally against them. The Tories here, like everywhere else, are relishing the chance to take a chainsaw to local government. So when Dave's administration is tasked with another £20m shortfall, will he revert to full tub-thumping mode and denounce the government from the rooftops of Chell? His heart says yes but ... he has his new Conservative friends to please. They won't relish their ally moaning and groaning about them to the local media. The alternative then is to offer muted criticisms, but that risks upsetting some of his group councillors. The problem there is because the City Indies have foresworn the concept of party discipline, they can never guarantee that all of their group is going to vote with the leader and observe the coalition deal. After the customary honeymoon period, there is the very real risk of paralysis.

Let's talk about those City Independent councillors as well, some of whom are, as we might say, "controversial". There is Janine Bridges, previously of the Labour Party - and before that City Independent. She curiously found a conscience and discovered her opposition to the "dictatorship" Labour had imposed on the city five minutes after her challenge for the deputy leadership of the council group ignominiously collapsed. She says her resignation was about the the Rotherham child abuse scandal, and yet now sits in group meetings with a fellow City Indy who is on the sex offenders' register for the possession of child abuse images. With principles that change with the wind, Dave Conway had better watch out. Then there's my old mucker Jackie Barnes. Her and I have form. She soundly beat a local by-election campaign I ran by issuing a 20 page manifesto calling for the banning of cervical smears and dubbing people born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s the greatest ever. It worked, and I'm not at all bitter (though perhaps council officers announcing the business district plan just prior to the campaign had more to do with it). But since her election in 2012 she has courted controversy by getting herself barred from The White Star, a local much-loved (and council staff frequented) boozer. Small beer when it comes to political scandals, sure, but can her boisterous behaviour be contained?

Much more seriously than either of these is the unwelcome return of Melanie Baddeley in Abbey Hulton. Page two of the City Indy manifesto reads "HELPING to create conditions for everyone to thrive regardless of age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, disability or background." That is provided you are one of the "genuine people of Stoke-on-Trent", whoever they are. Now why is it that Labour, the Tories, the Greens, TUSC, the LibDems, and even UKIP didn't feel the need to feature a homily to equality and the City Independents did? Could it be to do with Cllr Baddeley and their candidate for Meir Park, Ellie Walker, having previously sat as BNP representatives? You bet. As Stoke BNP fragmented prior to its welcome move into irrelevance, Walker left the group and renounced her past association. She and her husband didn't know they had represented a fascist party for five or so years, you see. Easy mistake, I suppose. Baddeley, however, was a BNP councillor until Labour turfed her out in 2011. As far as I'm aware, she has not distanced or accounted for her active BNP membership, nor retrospectively apologised for the racist literature put out in her name, nor publicly repudiated that association. None of this would matter a great deal, except this year Dave Conway has appointed her deputy Lord Mayor, which means she will be Stoke's first citizen in approximately a year's time. This ridiculous position, which should have been scrapped years ago, means that Baddeley will be the official face of the city for visiting dignitaries, for big inward investors, and can look forward to having her mug slapped all over promotional material. Call me, I don't know, someone with commonsense, but surely it's monumentally stupid to have this role filled by a councillor who, not long ago, was a key member of a party that whipped up hatred against local Muslims, thought a good chunk of the city's population had no right to be there, and tarnished Stoke's image as a racist place. Stupid yes, but no problem for our City Indies, the Tories, and UKIP who are letting this happen.

If the coalition can't even get a simple grace-and-favour right, what ill does this bode for the complex problems Stoke faces? Let's see. By announcing their intention to get rid of the council chief executive (by name), and the press department, they have already pre-empted the consultation process required by law and have put the local authority in a ridiculously weak position when it comes to deleting those posts. All affected may even have grounds for a constructive dismissal suit, and that could cost the council a fair whack. They want to reverse the present council leader and cabinet system, and return to a committee-based way of doing things - seemingly without realising this requires primary legislation in Westminster. And they hope, magically, somehow, that without getting the city centre right the depressed town centres of Stoke, Burslem, Tunstall, Fenton, and Longton will sort themselves out. 

It's not looking good.

Stoke's governing coalition is a fragile thing that's going to have a hard time holding itself together. The only consolation having this frightful ball of piss and wind visited upon my city is that I now have something else to write about. Don't disappoint!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Behold: The Protest Oven Glove

Behold, the forces of progress and socialism were caught napping as No voters in tomorrow's equal marriage referendum in the Irish Republic take to the streets in the latest protest apparel: the oven glove.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Feminism and Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road is a paradox. A completely overblown, absurd masterpiece of a paradox, but one that balances two seemingly irreconcilables and fuses them astonishingly successfully. On the one hand its an utterly mindless action romp with scant dialogue, a simple plot, lashings of violence, and spectacular vehicles that make for very big explosions. Yet beneath that is a cunning and penetrating commentary on patriarchal (not male per se) violence and feminist struggle. This is what I'm going to take a look at so yes, this piece is rammed with spoilers.

Okay, where to begin. In one of his many asides, this one on the so-called Asiatic mode of production, Marx noted the despotisms of Asia, particularly in the desert regions, rested on control and maintenance of water supplies. Leaving well alone the controversies that ballooned around Marx's statement, in MMFR this is certainly the case. The War Boys, a cultish group ruled by Immortan Joe, keeps its population in thrall by being the only source of water in a parched desert wasteland. Every so often, Joe turns on the immense pipes beneath his citadel and briefly drenches the hundreds of wretched followers gathered beneath his balcony. In so doing, he chooses to lecture them on resisting one's dependency on water. We are taken into his lair. Joe himself is an albino grotesque who relies on a breathing apparatus and a suit that protects his irritable skin. We also get the measure of the kind of society he runs. Sat tethered to milking machines are a half dozen women, and locked up in a vault are his five brides: women he keeps imprisoned and, it is implied, he repeatedly rapes to yield him a son.

Below that are his caste of war boys who are cursed with a 'half-life'. It seems these fanatical followers (and cannon fodder) have some form of cancer that limits their usefulness, and binds them to the father worship of Joe. Faced with a lingering death as the cancer takes hold, they prefer to carelessly throw their lives away fighting in one of the Citadel's war bands.

Here then we have a patriarchy in a classical sense. This is not the rule of women by men, but of women and men by the father. It is for Joe's satisfaction that nearly all the young men are pressed into soldiery, that he keeps a collection of women as, for want of a better phrase, breeders; and that the destitute subjects of his kingdom are kept under his thumb by his ownership and control of the Citadel's hydraulics. The patriarchy - and the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to have conceived of one more viscerally ugly and brutal than this - controls property, the means of repression, and the means of reproduction.

Imperator Furiosa is a woman who thinks differently. Abducted as a young child, she grew to be one of Joe's trusted lieutenants. Neither cannon fodder or sex slave, she is charged with the task of driving a tanker to the nearby gas refinery run by one of Joe's cronies. Except she has gone rogue. Under Joe's nose she liberates his "wives" and smuggles them into her truck, where she plans to take them to 'the green place', the idyllic matriarchy she was hailed from. The mayhem starts when Furiosa takes the tanker off road and the war band set off in pursuit.

This is where the titular Max properly enters the frame. Having been captured by the War Boys, he's designated a universal blood bank where transfusions of his blood can keep Joe's warriors going a little longer. With the general alarm he's paired with Nux, a particularly fanatical boy not long for this world, and rides into battle with him mounted as a front piece to his car. Eventually Max escapes and teams up with Furiosa, then the fun really begins.

As an action film it is notable for two things. Unlike previous iterations of Mad Max, this is less Max as lone wolf saviour and more as equal help meet. There are times when he saves the day for the band of women he's escorting, but there are others where they save his skin. Far from being helpless, Furiosa is up to her neck in fighting and action. She's the one with the plan, while Max is a drifter just along for the ride. Theirs is a fully cooperative relationship and it's this mutual interdependence that sees them through to victory.

Finally, Furiosa arrives at her former homeland and is greeted by the half dozen remaining members of her tribe. They are a strictly separatist group with one of the women boasting about how many men's heads she's blown off over the years. But ultimately it's bitter sweet. The green land is a poisoned marsh. She may have reached safety beyond Joe's reach, but it's safety in desolation. After despairing an screaming into the wilderness, her alternative plan is to just ride out into the desert - they have enough supplies for 160 days and hope they'll eventually come across something. Max, however, has an alternative suggestion. If Joe's forces can be trapped in the canyon system they battled through on the way in they can return to the Citadel with its water supply and green of its own. Cue more surreal, sumptuous mayhem.

Needless to say, our heroes kill Joe, defeat his army, and make it back to the Citadel in one piece. This is where it takes an interesting turn. So far it's been warrior feminists and male allies who've defeated the patriarchy. When they reveal Joe's torn body to the crowds the old social structure crumbles, and the wretched of this earth celebrate. From a radical point of view, while welcome it nevertheless underlines the myth of the vanguard who, in Guevarist fashion, enter the city and liberate the huddled masses. It's not an act of self-liberation. However, as our heroes start being elevated up to the higher echelons the water starts flowing again. The women strapped to milking machines have seized the moment to liberate themselves and turn on the taps. Our vanguard, sans Max who melts into the crowd, help people up onto the rising platform. It's no accident that the first helped up is a particularly rough looking bloke. The message here is clear: men have nothing to fear from feminism. My destroying the patriarchy, of the rule of men and women by powerful men, then all are liberated. The relationships and social structures that have twisted society into an apparatus of domination can be recast, laying open the road to a better, freer place for everyone.

Hence rather than MMFR being open to feminist interpretation, it itself is a $150m commentary on feminism, by way of ultra violence, the best guitarist ever, and audacious nonsense. Do go for a showing: it will be the best film you've seen this year.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

If David Miliband Had Won ...

The polls were with Labour. The feedback on the doorstep was very encouraging. It looked like all the naysayers and the problems of the previous five years had been put to bed. Until that exit poll flashed up on the nation's TV screens. It gave the Tories a clear lead, and one several seats away from a majority. Then the worst happened. As the night wore on it became increasingly clear Labour were not winning the seats it needed to capture to form the largest party, and by the morning the impossible had happened: David Cameron had pulled the irons of an overall majority from the election fire.

Despite the naysaying and doom laden predictions coming from the left of the labour movement, David Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party started off well. From the moment he emerged ashened face from behind the curtain at party conference, he set out a stall that confounded expectations. Labelled as the continuity Blair candidate, David's victory speech - secured across all three sections of the electoral college, albeit very narrowly in a higher-than-expected turnout from USDAW members in the trade union component, emphasised the need to capture economic credibility. He announced an establishment of a commission under Alastair Darling to revisit the rules and responsibility attached to government spending, but he also played to the left by indulging tough rhetoric around the regulation of the entire economy. The behaviour and spending of public bodies wouldn't be the only ones to be covered by tough new rules: businesses big and small were also expected to behave responsibly and play their part. Concerned to yank back economic credibility from the Tories, he reaffirmed the Darling plan to halve the deficit over the course of the parliament, and made points around the need to develop a proper industrial strategy. Lastly, David Miliband announced an ambitious plan to re-energise and refound Labour as a mass organisation, offering CLPs incentives to recruit people and draw more trade unionists into the party. Jon Cruddas was also announced as the face of the Movement for Change.

Shadow cabinet elections came and went. As Darling had ruled himself out from heading up a front bench position, the shadow chancellorship went to John Denham. Angela Eagle was sent to BIS, in an unexpected comeback Ed Miliband got the shadow foreign brief, Yvette Cooper the home office, Jim Murphy defence, Alan Johnson education, and Andy Burnham health. Observers noted that Ed Balls was kept from the top team, getting the Transport brief.

During the first year of opposition, the David-led Labour Party played the Westminster game well. He proved, at times, an effective interlocutor at Prime Minister's Questions, though more often than not the clashes ended with a score draw. Labour also supported the air strikes in Libya, leading some - mainly on the left - criticising Miliband for appearing to have too warm a relationship with David Cameron. Questions were also raised that summer when a scandal broke about phone hacking. It transpired that News of the World journalists were hacking voicemails and using the information to run stories. The public and Westminster were largely unconcerned until it was found the phone of murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, had been tampered with, which gave her parents hope that she may have been alive. An almighty storm brewed up and Rupert Murdoch was forced to close his Sunday paper to prevent the toxicity spreading to the rest of his publishing empire. However, while condemning the appalling practices that had been uncovered, David Miliband did not launch his own generalised critique of the press - instead much of the legwork was left to people marginalised under the new regime, such as Tom Watson.

Nevertheless, a successful party conference in Liverpool came and went - crowned by a speech applauded from all sides of the commentariat for setting out a vision of a Greater Britain, in which all were to benefit from a rising tide of prosperity once the forces of conservatism had been pushed aside. It was bitter sweet from a left point of view. He made supportive comments around the living wage, and challenged Labour-run councils to implement it. Though, again, there were grumbles and a few relatively low-level protests around cuts to local services - councils were expected to get on with the business of passing on Tory cuts themselves. Yet the opinion polls ticked upwards, and David Miliband's personal ratings hovered in close proximity to the PM's.

Then came the darkest moment for the government and the brightest for Labour. George Osborne's omnishambles budget saw him ease up on austerity and commit the government to the Darling plan, something Miliband jumped on with alacrity. In his budget response he demolished Osborne's austerity policies. In one fell swoop the Tories had renounced their economic credibility by retreating to the surer ground of Labour's plan. However, just as the path to the home counties opened up, so the cracks started appearing in David's leadership. It began almost imperceptibly. At a stunt following the announcement of the pasty tax, the leader along with several shadcab colleagues piled into a Gregg's for a photo opp and a round of sausage rolls and pasties were duly ordered. All tucked in outside, save David, who on the way to his car was snapped dropping his into a bin. A small thing that would later assume greater significance.

Following George Galloway's win in the Bradford West by-election, a number of union leaders and left MPs wrote an open letter to the leader's office asking for a policy review, and urging the adoption of an agenda they argued would tackle the 'cost of living crisis'. Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears. David had also refrained from criticising bankers' pay outs at the start of the year, despite his previous calls for responsibility in business. Amid the poll leads, that for three months consistently topped 12 points, Team David thought they were on the road to Downing Street. After all, while Bradford West could be put down to a one-off, Labour was able to win Corby with ease after Louise Mensch stepped down from the House.

2013, however, was not a kind year to Labour at all. From April the government's change to housing benefit - the introduction of what came to be known as the bedroom tax - came into force. Constituency offices had a surge in cases from people affected by this punishing attack on the most poor and vulnerable. Unfortunately, not wanting to risk being seen as weak on social security, David Miliband criticised its implementation, dwelling on the fact there was not enough social housing for those hit by the change to move into. However, he refused to reverse the policy saying it, along with a number of changes the government had made, might be subject to a review after the election. This stoked up a row with the big trade unions, leading to an unseemly war of words in the pages of The Guardian and New Statesman. Matters weren't helped when Unite were accused of trying to rig a selection in Falkirk. However, this was followed by a much bigger crisis - the largest of David Miliband's leadership.

In August, Parliament was recalled to discuss the murder of dozens of children in a chemical attack in Syria. Intelligence pointed to Assad's forces being responsible, though it was not one hundred per cent conclusive. David Cameron tabled a motion seeking the House's permission to join American military action, which the Labour leader backed. This was followed by the resignation of a number of junior shadow cabinet people, and defiance of the party whip by some 80 MPs. A large street movement developed, albeit not quite in the same proportions the Iraq War mobilised 10 years earlier. Nevertheless, it was profoundly damaging. George Galloway's Respect Party had a second lease of life, and the Greens and UKIP also pushed themselves forward as vocal opponents of the war. As for the fortunes of the conflict, systematic pounding of government positions enabled the Islamist militias on the ground. The civil war stalemate was broken and rebel forces poured into Damascus, with Assad and his closest allies barely escaping by a diplomatic jet provided by Russia. Immediately, the militias started fighting among themselves. The largest and most powerful, ISIS, was eventually able to win out but soon moved against the Kurds in the north and began incursions into western and northern Iraq. At the time of writing, some 200,000 people lie dead and most of Syria and chunks of Iraq are in the grip of Islamist terror. Again, the United States and Britain have been forced into turning against a monster of their making.

Labour's share in the polls started to slide. The war was unpopular, and Labour strategists were confounded by its diminutive effect on Tory polling figures, while biting into our party's shares. The Greens especially benefited, reporting a membership surge on account of their anti-war stance and positioning against the bedroom tax. By the time conference season came around, there was very little he could say to assuage members' anger. Nevertheless, he did retain the active support of enough to prevent an existential crisis to his leadership. After a lacklustre speech about the need to create a stakeholding meritocracy, he made a quiet approach to the unions for a Warwick-style agreement - this was due to be a very public making up, and was scheduled for the new year.

This, however, was overshadowed by two events. The sad passing of Paul Goggins triggered a by-election in Wythenshawe and Sale East in February. Labour kept the seat with ease, but the rise of UKIP and the Greens the previous year saw them both turn in very creditible performances of 18% and 11% respectively. Commentators were quick to note these sorts of protests against the opposition didn't bode well for the general election. The second was the surfacing of a video, published by the Guido Fawkes blog, of David Miliband at a private fundraising dinner for business. Asked about the future of trade unions, he replied "Do they even have one?". The result was absolutely devastating. There were mass resignations and the war of words with Unite dragged in the rest of the trade union movement. Even USDAW and Community chimed in with a joint statement by Labour affiliates. Warwick mk III never happened, and Unite, Unison, and the GMB pledged to support only those Labour candidates who professed trade union values. The Tories, having looked for an angle to hit back at Miliband, linked his union comments, the pasty incident, and Westminster tittle-tattle about his alleged arrogance and indifference to more junior members as evidence of elitism and snobbery. Caricatures as David as Lord Snooty started appearing in the press, and stories circulated of divaesque behaviour that put Liam Byrne's 'Working with Liam Byrne' document in the shade.

Somehow, despite the awful pressure of Tory attacks and party crisis, David was able to present the same smooth, confidence to the camera. Even the panic that gripped Westminster in the closing days of August over the independence referendum seemed not to disturb his preternatural calm. The Better Together campaign had long since been licensed out to Alistair Darling. He and other Labour MPs were sharing platforms and media pitches with the Tories in defence of the union, and David himself went on telly jointly with David Cameron to appeal for a no vote and warn of dire consequences should Scotland secede, particularly with regard to pension funds and use of the pound. In the end, Project Fear worked and independence was rejected 55-45. However, much to Labour's dismay their polling figures collapsed, a problem that was exacerbated after Johann Lamont, the incumbent Scottish leader, resigned arguing that not only was she fed up being treated like the head of a branch office, but also attacked an unwillingness to offer the kinds of Labour policies the SNP were making a show of appropriating.

As 2015 came round, the polls were tight. Wipe out was predicted in Scotland and a close race was forecast in England. On the plus side, despite all the difficulties of the previous two years, Labour ran the Tories almost neck and neck on economic competence and leadership qualities. Then, in the final two weeks of the campaign, the Tories started pushing hard the line that a lash up between the SNP and Labour were inevitable. The party that tried to break up the union would put Labour's much trumpeted economic competence into jeopardy, so why take a chance?

In the end, the result was all over the place. The SNP scooped up 56 out of 59 seats. The Blairist targeting of Middle England saw a healthy number of swing constituencies fall into Labour's hands. This, however, was extremely uneven. The Tories' own version of Project Fear in England managed to scare Tory leaning UKIP voters and some soft Labour votes in their direction, while Labour-leaning kippers kept to the purples. Meanwhile, on their left flank, the Greens polled extremely well off the back of their anti-war work, winning just shy of three million votes - a million less than UKIP. They came from the LibDems but, significantly, from Labour too. Virtually every gain was offset by a splintering of Labour's working class and progressive support in a number of seats it really should have kept hold of. At the end of it, after a night none of us saw coming - though the warning signs were there - Labour had gone into reverse. Stalemate and Scotland gave us a net loss of 24 seats.

Bewildered, angry, disappointed, David Miliband announced his resignation on the Friday and assumed full responsibility for Labour's failure. That wasn't his can to carry alone, but the controversial decisions and non-decisions he made left a number of people wondering what would have happened had the other Miliband brother won.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Notes on the Labour Leadership Contest

There's something to be said for political leadership contests. It's the one time politicians are honest about each other. It's also an occasion for an airing of views, of setting one's stall out in public about the strategies and policies that are likely to capture the imagination, and get party and country out of the holes they're in.

Unfortunately, so far at least, the Labour leadership contest falls short of this ideal-typical notion of what a contest should look like. Having scanned numerous discussions in the last week amid the compulsory Ed Miliband obituaries; professional commentators and the hoi polloi of social media are fixating on personality over politics. That's probably because there isn't that much separating the five (I'm including my erstwhile boss here, even though he's yet to declare). It's frustrating. The left have piled in behind Andy Burnham, it looks like the Progress-y types are rallying around Liz Kendall, leaving Yvette Cooper to mop up whoever's left. Poor old Tristram and Mary Creagh, they will be hard pressed to pick up the required 35 MP votes to be put before the membership. And no one, not one of the candidates so far have made much of a policy announcement. Aspiration is the buzz word of choice, and all are vying for its mantle.

Of course, personalities are important in politics. Having a figure that can embody your party and movement, as well acting as a canvas for uncommitted/swing voters to project whatever they want onto her/him is crucial. Though, it should be noted that leader effects can be overstated. Despite the chatter about how better David Miliband would have done, serious research into this area finds that leaders have marginal effects on vote tallies (though, in the case of this election, that might have made the difference between a hung Parliament and a majority).

Let us dwell then on the issue of personality and the scraps of policy comments made by the frontrunners so far. Again, condensing the chatter out there in political comment land, a number of views are coalescing. Andy Burnham is too northern and too working class to appeal to the 901 middle England voters who gifted the Tories their majority. He has privately-held conservative views consistent with his Catholicism (you can guess what they are, nudge nudge), and, well, Mid-Staffs Hospital. Yvette Cooper is a time server who, for obvious reasons, is too close to Ed Balls and carriages baggage from the Blair/Brown ancien regime. She voted for the Iraq War and "opposed" Theresa May by, at times, appearing even more authoritarian. Mary Creagh is this contest's Andy Burnham (circa 2010) who stands no chance, but is raising her profile. Similarly with Tristram Hunt. His urbane charm would go down very well in the South East but ooop north, he is the stuff of which UKIP votes are made. And then there is Liz Kendall. Select Tories have helpfully let it be known she is the one that scares them the most, and while very personable with a sharp tactical brain, she is as Westminster wonky as the rest and has skewed priorities. Asked at the leadership hustings at the weekend's Progress conference, she outlined one of her priorities to be "public sector reform". There couldn't be a clearer signal of her heir-to-Blair creds. The fear is the hollowing out that took place under Blair and Brown, and has since been partially filled back in, could see the excavation start all over again.

In fact, that Progress hustings should be required viewing for all sections of the labour movement. Just don't expect too much. While all are aware of what Tristram calls the triple-bind - coming back in Scotland, seeing off UKIP and other threats in heartland seats, and scooping up Tory-held constituencies by the bucketload, there is scant - if any - awareness of the deep seated problems the party has got. Take this of Barry Sheerman speaking "unofficially" for Camp Kendall. He says:
The 2010 result, and the way it happened, means we need a different relationship with the trade unions. We don’t want to break it, but we have to be realistic about the role of unions in society. They are smaller than they ever were and they are increasingly rare in the private sector. They do not provide troops on the ground or at general committees. The number of trades unionists that are active in the Labour party on the ground is tiny.
Charming. I don't know what it's like for Barry in his Huddersfield patch, but that's certainly not the case with the half dozen or so CLPs of my acquaintance. Perhaps a few words with his West Midlands comrades might be in order. Nevertheless, to choose to mouth off on this issue now when candidates should be courting votes suggests that Liz thinks the future is putting even more distance between real working people, at the very moment politicians treat working people in the abstract as a fetish. Thanks, but no thanks. You can't solve Labour's problems by making them worse.

And then there were four. A litmus test for any political leader is economic literacy and understanding the difference between political economy and economics driven by politics. And, unfortunately, this is where two more of the contenders fall short. On Thursday's Question Time, responding to an audience member asking about spending under the last Labour government prior to the crash, Tristram conceded the Tory view that it had spend too much. It got a round of applause, but it was wrong. Likewise, and worryingly for a leadership candidate, at Progress Mary said it hadn't and yet a day later, faced with Brillo on The Sunday Politics, she said that it had - but won't be apologising for extra nurses, hospitals and what have you. It's been a long time since I've seen such gratuitous - and fatuous - cake eating. So for not standing up for the truth, however inconvenient it might be and, in Mary's case, for basic dishonesty, it's a no.

Two left. Notably, only Yvette defended Labour's spending. Andy clapped, the others sat on their hands. Here then are the two who have an inkling about what's going on. Yvette, as a trained economist, presumably believes the Post-Keynesian economics that underpinned her husband's challenge in 2010 and, one hopes, will see them get an airing this time round. However, the big problems with Ed Balls was his intellectual pitch against austerity during the 2010 contest, and then abandoning it entirely once he assumed the shadow chancellor brief. He knew cuts were unnecessary and damaging, but went along with it anyway because - again - Westminster convenience. Will she show greater political courage?

And there is Andy. He has the momentum, but does he have the policies? Interestingly, at Progress he made an audacious pitch for aspiration by hinting (only hinting, mind) that he's set to lump tuition fees in with so-called 'taxes on aspiration' - one barrier to aspiration most Blairite ultras have shown persistent indifference to. But much of what he is standing for remains in the murk. A development of a national care service and its integration into the NHS, certainly, but what about the economy, housing, and the rest? And what's his diagnosis of the problems facing the Labour party, the movement he represents, and how does he propose we address them?

Of the field, Andy and Yvette seem to be the most plugged in but there's little that is inspirational. Unless things liven up, unless the serious questions are raised, debated, and faced up to, the road beyond the leadership election is going to be rocky.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Why Labour Lost: A Scottish Perspective

I certainly don't agree with all of what is said here. For instance, it assumes much of the English and Welsh political landscape is similar to Scotland. The piece below, however, contains some very uncomfortable truths for all Labour people. I'll be writing about the Labour leadership later on, but it behoves us all to pause and reflect on some of the disastrous decisions made over the last five years. This originally appeared on Labour Hame as a comment, and came to me by way of the excellent Mutterings from the Left blog.

"I am so tired of the word “nationalism” being branded about by Labour. And, ooh, they inserted the word “patriotic” in their constitution, how quaint. Personally, I don’t give a toss about patriotism and nationalism. I am an EU citizen living in Scotland and I voted YES because it is my firm belief that every country has a right to political self-determination and should not be ruled by another country. This is something that I suspect most Labourites would in theory agree to, because it makes them sound noble, but when applied to Scotland, they suddenly get a hissy fit at the notion of someone “wanting to break up our country.” The only explanation I can find for this behaviour is that they believe Scotland is not a country.

I’m going to help you out here, Labour, because I have watched your decline for a long time and it seems clear that you have not the foggiest idea where you have gone wrong. That is why almost everything you did to improve your prospects has only made things worse. So let me try to explain, and let me tell you in advance that everyone I have spoken to over the last few days agrees with me. Not because I am so super-clever, but because it is blatantly obvious. Only Labour seem to be unable to see it.

Forget Blairism. The con Blair pulled off worked once, but it will not work again in our lifetime, because there are things people don’t forget. Blairism gained Labour the support of a certain number of swing voters and that helped you as long as your core supporters loyally stood by you. Whatever made you think, though, that you could give up the goals and values of your real clientele and that nevertheless they would keep voting for you indefinitely? Sure, many people feel loyal to a party and are patient with it, and there is a certain inertia that needs to be overcome before some voters desert their traditional party. But if that party continually fails to represent their supporter’s interests, these supporters will eventually walk away. The sentence I heard again and again and again these last few months was this: “I have not left Labour, Labour have left me.” That is the core of the problem.

So listen to me well, Labour Party, because if you get this wrong again you will be done for, once and for all: Don’t try to appeal to Tory voters. Tory-leaning voters might vote Labour as a one-off protest vote, but by pandering to them you alienate the people who are your natural clientele. For a few years that might work out, but eventually the Tory-leaning voters will return to the Tory fold and your own supporters will decide you’re just not worth it anymore. If they have any sense, they’ll move on to the Greens, and if not, there’s always UKIP. If they feel seriously conflicted, they might just stay at home and not vote at all. In Scotland, they have serious alternative now. In any case, you’re unlikely to gain back their trust as long as you present yourself as a paler copy of the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon did give you the heads-up in the leadership debate. She said that of course there is a difference between Tories and Labour, but the problem is that the difference is not big enough. It is nowhere near big enough.

There are several ways in which this failure to be properly Labour instead of Tory-lite has played out.

1. You have failed to be an effective opposition. Instead of challenging the Tories’ brutal austerity policies, their hair-raising incompetence with the economy, their blatant favouring of the rich elites, you have done little else than bicker about details. You have allowed the electorate in England and Wales to believe against all evidence to the contrary that the Tories have is basically right. You voted with them for more austerity cuts. You voted with them for Trident renewal. You voted with them for more foolish military interventions in the Middle East, even though you must know by now how the Iraq War has damaged you. You abstained from the vote on the fracking moratorium which would have succeeded had you not been so cowardly. You have not been a counterweight to the nasty coalition, you have enabled them.

2. You have allowed the Tories to determine the political narrative. Instead of countering their agenda with your own agenda, you kept telling us you would do much the same as the Tories, only in a nicer way, and you deluded yourself that this would keep everyone happy. All this nonsense about cutting the deficit by slashing public services and restricting government spending, when it is standard textbook economy that in times of recession the government must increase spending to help the economy recover – you could have called the Tories out on this, you could have presented the figures of how the Tory approach had made the economy much, much worse. Why did it have to be Nigel Farage of all people who pointed out in the leaders’ debate that the Tories had doubled the national debt? That would have been your role, you should have hammered this message home relentlessly instead of letting them get away with their ludicrous claim that they had fixed the economy. You even allowed UKIP to set your agenda: Instead of making it clear, like Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood and Nicola Sturgeon did, that immigration really, really isn’t a relevant problem, you went about printing “Controls on immigration” on mugs and even inscribing it on your ridiculous monolith.

3. Instead of fighting the Tories, you fought your potential allies. This wasn’t so disastrous in the case of the Greens and Plaid Cymru, given their small numbers, but I will say that having a big campaign to unseat Caroline was not only mean-spirited but stupid; those resources should have gone into targeting a Tory seat. However, it was your treatment of the SNP that might well have cost you the election. Again, you let the Tories determine the narrative. They crowed about a constitutional crisis, about a second referendum which neither the SNP nor the wider YES movement are seeking within the next few years anyway, about “breaking up our (sic!) country,” about chaos and nationalism and England being held to ransom. They and their compliant media outlets abused the SNP and the people of Scotland on a daily basis in the most despicable terms. And all you did was parrot them. Nicola Sturgeon could not have held out her hand any more sincerely, and yet you sneered at it.

What you could have done, should have done, was to challenge the Tory narrative. The SNP have been riding sky-high in the polls since September; and you had known for months that you could only form a government with their help. Plenty time to come up with a constructive strategy. You could have pointed out that the SNP are a moderate party of the centre left. You could have pointed out that they have a track record of eight years of competent and sensible and not-at-all-outrageous government in Holyrood. You could have pointed out that they stood for the kind of temperate progressive policies that many, many people in England would have been delighted to see. You could have pointed out that in no imaginable universe would even 59 SNP MPs be able to call the shots in a 650-strong parliament; that you would always be the boss in any kind of arrangement. You could have thrown all your might into convincing the English electorate that a Labour/SNP team effort would be good for the whole of the UK, as it undoubtedly would have been. Instead you declared a week before the election on national television that you would rather see the Tories return to power than work with the SNP. The stupidity of this is mind-blowing. And all under the banner of “not working with a party that seeks to break up the UK.” Tell me, what is your deal again with the SDLP, a party that seeks to unite Northern Ireland with the republic? You don’t even field candidates against them to give them a better chance? If you can work with them, why not with the SNP? But even today you still harp on about “nationalism” when in fact what the people of Scotland have opted for is the moderate social democratic policies which you should have offered but didn’t.

4. Having alienated your core supporters and turned your back on your potential allies, and with no progressive track record as an effective opposition to show to the electorate, you have based your election campaign on sound bites, PR stunts and silly gimmicks. Just after Nicola Sturgeon presented her gender-balanced cabinet and promised to work tirelessly on shattering the glass ceiling, you insulted the women of the UK by inviting them to talk “around the kitchen table” about “women’s issues,” proudly brought to us by a pink van. And you didn’t see it coming that people would call it the Barbie Bus and laugh it out-of-town? You allowed Jim Murphy to run amok in Scotland with one insane “policy announcement” after another – remember the “1000 more nurses than anything the SNP promises?” Why not promise weekend breaks on Jupiter for the over 65s? You wheeled out Gordon Brown at random intervals to make meaningless promises and you expected people to be swayed by the pledges of a retiring back bencher? You had some wishy-washy election promises carved in a massive gravestone and you thought that was a good idea?

Yours was a hopeless, hopeless campaign from beginning to end, without vision, without structure, without conviction. And yet I, like so many, clung to the hope that surely people in England must be so fed up with the Tories by now that they’d vote for you anyway and that surely once the election day dust had settled you’d see sense and head a progressive alliance with the SNP, SDLP, Plaid Cymru and the lovely Caroline Lucas who is worth her weight in diamonds. We could have turned things around for the good of the many rather than the few. Instead the Tories now have carte blanche to suck dry the people of the UK and grin smugly while they feast on our bones. All thanks to you, Labour Party. Now get your act together and make sure this will never happen again. I cannot spell it out any clearer."

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Eurovision Preview 2015

Eerily like the front runners for Labour's leadership, none of this year's contestants in the Eurovision Song Contest particularly grab me. Even the genius inclusion of Australia as a 60th anniversary one-off has not flattered my discerning, world-weary ear. There are still a few, however, that stand out from the mush for a variety of reasons. The first is Armenia's entry:

This year marks a century since the beginning of the Armenian Genocide, so what better way to commemorate the event and raise awareness by, erm, immortalising it Eurovision-style? It's a worthy track, how could it not be? But, I'm afraid to say it's a touch forgettable and without the trappings of the video, who would guess the titular shadow is that cast by one of the 20th century's most appalling atrocities?

Now, you can say what you like about Russia, but they do take Eurovision very seriously. Take this year's entry as a case study:

Production and melody-wise, Polina Gagarina's entry nails all the qualities one expects from a Eurovision entry, sans the campery that definitely is not the done thing in Putin's Russia. Polina is a well known star, having graduated from their equivalent of The X-Factor and has had hits in the Rodina and Ukraine. A lesson there for the mandarins in charge of our entries.

Next up is this peculiar offering from Serbia.

For two thirds of the song, you're talking dullsville Euroballad and then, suddenly, it goes all uptempo and a bit dancey. And then it collapses back into dirge again. Oh well.

So, who is my favourite to win? No prizes for guessing it isn't Britain, again. No, this ditty has had very little traction on YouTube but it does have the novelty value of a Conchita Wurst and a Lordi. It's also possibly the shortest Eurovision song ever, if it can be called that:

Not quite those Extreme Noise Terror scamps, but it should discombobulate and divide Eurovision audiences. Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät are an outfit made up of guys with learning difficulties and mental disabilities, and they're playing punk. Any sympathy gained from the former is immediately challenged by the (thankfully brief) racket of the latter. It's a bit like the bigots from last year. They wanted to fancy Conchita but the beard. The Finnish entry hasn't been heavily trailed outside of Eurovision geek circles, but provided it gets through this week's semis it could be a surprise hit on the night. Will it do the business?

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Smoke Me a Kipper

Was going to blog about the doings at Stoke Council tonight, but the unfolding train wreck around UKIP's leadership has coloured me interested. For once I'm looking forward to Nigel Farage's appearance on Question Time tonight.

Looking back the one prediction I got right about political developments this year was this:
There will be a little bit of drop off [in UKIP support] come the election but we're talking figures of 12-13% here, certainly not a collapse the likes of Dan Hodges is predicting (hoping) for. A big slap on the back for them then. But my reading of the runes flags up a problem for them. They're only going to win one seat, and that will be Douglas Carswell's. Mark Reckless will depart from the Commons and Nigel Farage won't even make it in. Then comes the infighting, if Farage makes good his promise and resigns as UKIP leader. And when that happens I'll cheerfully pass round the popcorn.
Absolutely spot on. Pity my forecasts about Labour didn't come to pass ... Anyway, Farage did resign and it was therefore reasonable to expect there would be some chafing for leader between the hard right libertarians, and the so-called "left" red UKIP tendency around Patrick O'Flynn (or "PinkO'Flynn to his oh so hilarious factional opponents). That has indeed happened, but no one expected Farage to be the catalyst.

We know the gospel according to Nige. He'd made no bones about it. If he didn't in in South Thanet, then he would fall on his sword. Lo and behold the good voters of that blessed constituency spurned their opportunity to return the UKIP supremo to Westminster. "Are you going to resign, Mr Farage?" went the media scrum all throughout last Friday. Having captured - some may say cultivated - his rise, the press pack were out in force to document his fall. But that's when Farage started fudging it. Announcing his resignation on the sea front, he declared he'll be taking the summer off and if there's a leadership contest in the autumn, he'd consider throwing his hat in the ring again. Okay. Then there was the unseemly row between Carswell and the kipper apparatus over short money, which more than suggested a widening chasm between him and Farage's office. Then yesterday came the unresignation. Farage will be staying on after all. Apparently, he tendered his resignation to UKIP's NEC but they knocked it back. That, in addition to hundreds of letters and emails from the party faithful begging him to stay on had tipped his mind. Or had it? Rumour has it that Farage laid the law down to the NEC. "You need me", he's said to have said. He remained present as the NEC "debated" his fate meaning, of course, they had no choice but to unanimously cave to the gaffer.

Clearly, this was too much for O'Flynn. In his Times article this morning, he pulled the trick every critically loyal party hack has done - me included - by going for the leader's handlers. They're responsible for the "snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive" man who berates BBC audiences and treads on kittens, complained O'Flynn. Nigel should stay on, of course, but we need the charismatic beer smoking ciggy swilling chappy back. After some hussle 'n' tussle with emails flying back and forth, Farage's lieutenants have sailed off into the sunset. And now, at the time of writing, their leader may follow. From unresignation to re-resignation; the shortest fall, rise, and fall again in British political history. If I have jumped the gun, UKIP can look forward to a summer of internal scrapping either way.

The problem with UKIP is the same for any populist anti-politics movement. They have become a vehicle of catch-all protest. You've got disgruntled Tories in there. Pissed off Labour. Angry none-of-the-above'ers. Flat Earthers and the terminally bigoted. It's a ragtag rabble thrown together, a loose outfit in which its members are united by what they are against, not what they are for. Without the charismatic leader, or a replacement waiting in the wings, such an organisation cannot survive in the long-term. So grab the popcorn, and let the blood flow.

Image Credit

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Labour's SNP Lessons

The cataclysm came and Scottish Labour was obliterated. There are calls for Jim Murphy to go, calls that should be heeded for the good of the party. Yet what exactly happened in Scotland? We've visited some of the reasons, but there are wider points Labour needs to take on board from the SNP's success that are of direct relevance to England and Wales as well.

I often hear from comrades in Scotland that we down in England do not understand what's happening. Yours truly has been accused of that myself. But you don't need to strap yourself to a Souter-owned Stagecoach and barrel up to Glasgow to find this stuff out: there's ample material to flick through. Among the things we "don't get" is the toxic swamp Labour floundered into as it buddied up with the Tories to monster the prospect of Scottish independence. There's how the Labour establishment in Scotland (and London) treated Scottish constituencies as fiefdoms good for voting fodder and precious little else. Dull technocracy while in government, a party that gifted its opposition the mantle of progressive politics, and the election of a leader summating everything left-leaning voters in Scotland were against. You might say what's not to get?

There's more to this. The SNP rode the anti-austerity wave without being an anti-austerity party proper. They combine an aspiration for a different, better Scotland. The impulse behind a great deal of its support is progressive as opposed to narrowly separatist, and have successfully mixed that with anti-Westminster politics which, in England and Wales, has mainly realised itself in regressive forms. However, as everyone plotting a Labour leadership campaign is spraying around 'aspiration' like a mid-90s champagne supernova, the SNP have ably tapped into that constituency. The SNP has a positive politics agenda that can make nice middle class people feel, erm, nice. But its practical applications of Labourist statecraft are cunningly strategic. The removal of the EMA for kids in college has helped fund the scrapping of tuition fees, ensuring that students from all backgrounds don't leave university with millstones of debt handing off their necks. This primarily benefits more privileged segments of the population, but is one aspirational policy would-be heirs-to-Blair down here are stubbornly allergic to. The SNP have also kept free prescriptions - introduced by Labour - going, and the less palatable aspects of their record have been hidden under a bushel. Like falling NHS spending on nursing, midwives, and hospital beds. Like cuts to part-time college places. Like moves to create a national identity database.

The key lesson here is, for the moment, the SNP have successfully triangulated the three pillars progressive politics need to support social democracy into government. They have successfully hegemonised social justice, aspiration, and the vision thing. In England and Wales, Labour had a shaky hand on the first, was a touch light on the second, and as for the third ... arguably failure here cost my party the general election. So it can be done. It's not about facing multiple directions at once but rather building a coalition around a story and policy agenda constituted by each. Tony Blair did it, albeit somewhat problematically from my point of view. And the SNP have done it on a slightly different basis. There's no reason why we can't.

What goes up must come down, however. The mass movement unleashed by the Scottish referendum has developed its own campaign outfits and institutions. It has a certain autonomy from the SNP, the two cannot fully be mapped onto one another. But ultimately, simply because it was there as the most convenient vehicle to articulate this movement politically, the party of Scottish independence became the beast it is now. It concentrates a huge amount of momentum, and with this comes a number of potential problems. So far, Nicola Sturgeon has played her cards extremely well. That the SNP are now facing off against an awful, crisis-prone Tory government, their existence as a powerful outsider can and will firm up the coherence of the movement. But ultimately, the contradictions will eventually bite. The cuts in government, its friendly relations with the Murdochs, the Souters, and the Trumps, the desire to slash corporation tax, the very fact that what was a pretty middle of the road bourgeois party of national independence has been swamped is a future mess in the making. What happens when some of its 56 MPs start going AWOL? When the party apparatus moves against people it designates as undesirable? When their opposition to the Tories isn't fully consistent? And how about the big question itself? There are plenty drawn to the SNP because of its current social democratic orientation and not independence, which is why Sturgeon has been very careful to rule out another referendum - except in the special circumstances of the UK voting to leave the EU. Others are far less pragmatic and are bent on independence. Quite how the two strands - social democracy and nationalism - can coexist indefinitely is hard to tell. Something will give in time.

None of this, however, is of immediate concern to the SNP. These are movements that are barely perceptible. Sturgeon is adroit enough to hold her coalition together - far more so than Dave, but it will come unstuck eventually. And how that happens will determine not just the fate of Scottish politics, but the direction it takes in the south too. The job of Labour is to study, to learn, and understand that if it ever hopes to come back in Scotland it needs to avoid the crass mistakes it piled up year after year, decade after decade, grasp the nature of the SNP and its mass support, and have the politics and nous to make the most of its inevitable difficulties.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Worst Election Result Ever

After getting routinely thumped by the Elvis Loves Pets party, where else can your vote go except ... down?

All is not what it seems. There are dirty tricks afoot. It emerges that the candidate and his wife claim to have voted for TUSC. I smell a rat.