Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Tube strikes, Miliband and prevailing despair

Pavlovian reactions do not come more strongly than when the Mayor of London makes one of his self-loving media appearances.  As the first in what is likely to be a long series of strikes on the Underground gets under way, the dispute is clearly being fanned by Johnson and his cronies.  A classic display tonight on Channel Four News where the charlatan blatantly lied about constant meetings with the RMT, when in fact he has not met any of the four trade unions involved with London Underground since the capital had the misfortune to elect him back in 2008.  Still, what is a little bit of truth when it would prove inconvenient to demonstrate his complete lack of interest in the daily lives of the little people.

As critical parts of London's infrastructure are paralysed, there is the inevitable jockeying for position by Tories hoping for soundbites.  Cameron is clearly auditioning for the part of Uriah Heep - his creepy, clearly-faked oiliness is a rebarbative reminder of why the bad old days of patrician Conservatism have come back.  His motive is not hard to discern - setting up Johnson for a fall will do his rickety position within the party no harm - and if the amoral buffoon were to prevail he will be able to spin his way into the reflected glory.  If another Tory bangs on about an undemocratic strike, were there a just God He would smite them for rank hypocrisy on top of the innumerable mortal sins they have already committed - after all, neither Cameron nor Johnson have anything approaching either the mandate that Bob Crow has within the RMT or indeed Manuel Cortes within the TSSA - and both unions have complied fully with restrictive legislation introduced by the Conservatives in the 1980s designed to preclude random strikes.

To watch the Tories twist is also to be reminded of the success with which they have captured sections of the media.  In the last week, we have seen their echo chambers reverberate with indignation that Labour might consider implementing a 50p tax rate once more - claiming that this is an undue restraint on trade and that there will be a brain drain of the self-styled wealth creators.  This does not stand up to even the most basic scrutiny, yet it is peddled as fact and certainty by commentators trying to whip up anti-Labour sentiment.  The Tory theory of entitlement is used to play off opposition groups against one another - so that people who have managed to maintain their own benefits through decent pensions, solidarity with others and a desire to better themselves are portrayed as the enemy of people who have been deprived of even basic security.

The Tory machine's approach is predictable and ongoing.  Knowing that there is a declining propensity to vote amongst younger people they feed the cynicism by continuing measures that do not merely support older people but transfer wealth towards them.  Funding their promises on welfare payments will mean that working-age people suffer much greater cuts - truly the evidence of the kind of social solidarity that Cameron, Osborne and Johnson picked up through their education, and which Gove will probably promote through compulsory workhouse experiences within GCSE history to ram home the point that to their cronies we are all the undeserving poor.

So where, in all this, is the Leader of the Opposition?  He seems to have been seduced, much as many of the self-styled modernisers, by the idea that all that he needs to do to appeal to the middle classes is to change the way in which his party operates.  Reforming leadership elections is all very well, but he needs to be out there attempting to build the kind of consensus that swept Major out of office in 1997 - but this time with a social democratic boldness that makes it clear that no kind of special pleading is going to immunise the rich, the self-styled business community and their cheerleaders from being obligated to contribute for the wider good of society.  Instead, he has been goaded into giving the appearance of condemning the Tube strikers rather than shaming Johnson and his acolytes.

Missing the opportunity to protest about a bubble economy, the constant erosion of social cohesion and the flagrant hypocrisy of an austerity programme that rewards the fraudsters, failures and freeloaders is a mistake.  When housing costs are spiralling, personal debt rising and even pursuing education has a massive price tag, Labour should be providing a narrative that raises hope of progress if not a cure.  Gradualism is necessary, but having some kind of vision where redistribution and equality of opportunity play a central role would differentiate the left from the right with a degree of clarity.

With the Liberal Democrats imploded and impotently awaiting their fate, largely determined by Cameron, Miliband should be taking this opportunity to reclaim the protest vote.  Instead it either expresses itself in apathy or in the continuing support for UKIP and its increasingly-unsavoury cast of lunatics.  Perhaps Farage should do a deal with Johnson - they are both dangerous bores with messianic delusions - but in the meantime the left should be much clearer that xenophobic rightism will never address any of the fundamental issues about economic and social justice.  Just hoping that UKIP and the Tories argue themselves into a standstill is not enough.

However, given the general mood of sullen storminess, this may be too optimistic.  One way forward is for the protagonists in the Tube strike to settle their differences by some alternative dispute resolution method.  The thought of Crow and Johnson mud-wrestling has almost encouraged me to start a petition - and it would certainly improve on much of what passes for television entertainment.  As the Tories debase the political agenda to that of a cat-calling pantomime, such an approach would at the least enliven the democratic process - and my money would be on Bob.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Boris, Bob and commuters as human shields

Over the next two weeks, it is likely that London will be significantly disrupted by strikes on the Underground.  Leaving aside the malevolent dominance that the capital exerts upon the social, cultural and economic life of the country, this is a particularly interesting manifestation of Tory incompetence and diversionary tactics - clearly targeted at the internal politics of the post-Cameron party but using the lives and prosperity of all those who rely on London as collateral and with an amoral and idiotic overlay.  Who better than Boris to be at the centre of it all?

The dispute has been triggered by proposals to close all ticket offices on the Underground; this is the pretext on which Johnson is proposing to attempt to win over public opinion.  Closing ticket offices may be a sensible move in many stations where changed technology reduces the need for and indeed the job satisfaction of the staff involved, provided that this addresses the need expressed by the network's users for more visibility and the perception of security that this conveys.  Yet nearly 1,000 jobs are to go, and thousands of others downgraded, as a result of these proposals.  Disingenous, or a lie on the part of Boris?  Difficult to decide - but to lose four members of staff at every station is not exactly going to reassure people that security and support are at hand.

As there is a less-than-covert imminent assault on Tube and Transport for London workers' pensions (at all levels, from the grotesquely-rewarded Commissioner downwards), it's hardly surprising that staff are feeling aggrieved.  Despite the oligarch's toy, the London Evening Standard, portraying the dispute as a Boris-driven desire to crush the neanderthal Bob Crow, the strikes are being backed by the normally-moderate TSSA union members.  In both TSSA's and the RMT's ballots, a greater proportion of the electorate backed strike action than backed Boris's re-election in 2012.   It is always amusing to watch Tories writhe on the back of democratically-expressed decisions, taken under union laws introduced by the Thatcher oppression, that suggest that labour's relationship to capital is contractual rather than subservient.

Johnson is a preening idiot who is unfit to be in charge of a clockwork train-set, let alone a major world city.  This is not news.  Yet his naked political ambition to become the next Tory leader (a vacancy which may be imminent but requires him to put his mane forward in somewhere convenient such as the soon-to-be-vacated Thirsk and Malton constituency) means that he has to do something to appeal to the Tory faithful.  His egregious follies, such as the revisiting of the discreetly-buried Maplin airport to despoil the Thames estuary, and his embracing of the parasitic class who are making much of his city no-go areas for anyone earning less than four or five times the average wage, are not winning him many friends amongst the desiccated cretins who make up the Tory backwoods.

So what better than to wrap himself up in Thatcherite glory, casting Bob Crow as a slightly less hirsute Arthur Scargill?  Whatever view is held of Mr Crow he is equally legitimate in his role as RMT General Secretary as the bouffant idiot is as Mayor of London, and this dispute has been fired up for the single purpose of making Boris more like Thatcher.  In terms of a pissing-up-the-wall contest he is trying to outdo his mentor.

The key difference is that the miners' strike broadly affected Labour-voting areas outside London, and could be portrayed accordingly.  A public transport dispute in the centre of the capital, affecting residents and the wide-ranging commuters from the Tory hinterlands, will have a direct impact on millions of lives.  The unions are starting to be much more creative in their media handling - so it will appear to be much less clear-cut than the rightist name-callers anticipate.

Johnson also has the problem that he is seen to be going back on an election pledge in 2008 not to close ticket offices.  While there is a good argument that technology and needs change over time, this was nothing more than a piece of political sophistry designed to wrong-foot Ken Livingstone - who was actually planning to move, gradually and with consent, towards many of the changes that London Underground are now putting forward.  The correct term for this is a "lie".  Johnson, on the other hand, may be suffering from medium-term memory loss.

The blond hypocrite is also Chairman (his word) of Transport for London, and has done nothing since being elected to engage with the unions - preferring to strike poses on his cycle and carp from the sidelines.  On Friday he offered to meet with Crow, but only if the union called off its action and reballoted - in other words striking a political pose to make him appear reasonable when in fact he remains hell-bent on union-bashing.  A rank approach - based on his stunted and publicity-hungry agenda rather than on any desire to resolve a dispute which he desperately needs to win in order to build up his credibility in the secure wing.

As millions of people trudge to work, have their social, educational and cultural lives disrupted and are made to feel even more miserable in this most protracted of winters, let it be remembered that Johnson draws his political and strategic positioning as a bastard offspring of Thatcher and Saddam Hussein - using human shields for his own vanity.  It is to be hoped, fervently, that he loses - but for all the collateral victims of Johnson's megalomania there may be the consolation that they have all been part of the forward march of buffonish rightism.