Sunday, 26 July 2015

Corbyn's legacy could be the death of Blairism

The steady progress of the Labour Party into farce reached its logical conclusion this week with the decision to abstain on the Tory Welfare Bill.  The contortions implicit in the interim leadership's approach, where the analytical framework is that Labour lost by not being Tory enough, and that they need to be seen to be statesmanlike in not opposing the ill-framed, malevolent ordure being served up, made it quite clear that the party machinery has not moved beyond the Blair-inspired myth that there is a populist centre ground that they occupy through divine right.

The final self-realisation of Margaret Beckett, that she is a "moron", albeit only in the context of allowing Jeremy Corbyn's name to appear on the leadership ballot, is mildly amusing, but about the only crumb of comfort to emerge from the ludicrous debacle.  Blair's intervention that anyone voting for Corbyn requires a "heart transplant"demonstrates the extent to which a challenger threatens the establishment appropriation of the social democratic party for its own ends.  Labour is fighting for its existence, but this may no longer be the automatic assumption of its right to govern and the discarding of any principle that offends the new right.

Competing leadership candidates have wisely distanced themselves from the phoney-Tony drivelling, preferring instead to concentrate on Corbyn's unelectability.  It is difficult, without being named, to differentiate between Liz Kendall and a centre-right Tory, so her protestations that electing Corbyn would put Labour in the wilderness for a generation are amusing - given that her main cheerleader appears to be Tristram Hunt whose credentials as either radical or compassionate have been fatally undermined of late.  She has clearly not noticed that the vagaries of our current constitutional settlement have done that, irrespective of whoever leads Labour.  Cooper and Burnham are being mildly more circumspect, but they still represent a continuity of the entitlement culture that Blair engendered and are cheered on by the dinosaurs of Westminster centralism and their commentator friends.

Many of Jeremy Corbyn's policy positions may not stand up to scrutiny, but his principles and his approach are much more oppositional and hopeful than anything that Labour has peddled of late.  The electorate saw through the simulacrum that Ed Miliband was forced to adopt - a prisoner of an outdated narrative whose priestly denizens are popular with the right-wing media so long as they are denouncing their own party.  For those of us old enough to remember the 1980s, Miliband increasingly resembled a hybrid between Kinnock and Foot, being both well-meaning and vilified in equal measure.  A move beyond the centrist compromise may be all that Labour can hope for at the moment.

There is a need for Labour to step up to challenge and oppose, which is, after all, the primary function of opposition.  As with the Tories its vote has been in steady decline for decades, and the diversity of political expression is wrong-footing those who base calculations on, at best, a General Election five years off, rather than on a vision of what a modern state could be capable of delivering for its citizens.  In such a situation, denial of the reality of a spectrum of parties on the progressive side of politics is of such stupidity that only a Blairite true believer could be sufficiently deluded.  The left of Labour are not generally addressing this, but the swell of alternative positions and relatively-untainted new supporters may turn this into a reality.

For a change of government, there needs to be progressive alignment, recognising the electoral realities.  In the three elections Blair won, he was greatly assisted by a strong Liberal presence as a two-pronged challenge to the Tories - distorting the overall result if not representing Charles Kennedy's party fairly - this cannot be assumed to exist going forward, and the nationalists, for all the strange and contorted cross between authoritarianism and libertarianism in their core ideology, are occupying space that Labour used to rely on.  A leader who cannot recognise this and speaks as though Labour are the sole articulator of the grievances of the poor huddled masses is doomed to both political failure and being denounced, correctly, as a particularly idiotic ostrich.

These are confusing times for those whose visceral hatred of the Tories is being reinforced by every action of this coterie of poltroonery.  Corbyn's role has been to upset the consensus that the only way to challenge them is to fight on territory that they define.  After two decades of trimming and responding to the Murdoch dog-whistle, his insurgency has at least raised the possibility of an alternative future where the left sets an agenda - it may not be enough to propel Labour back into the vanguard but it does create a space where engagement on the left will not simply be a matter of pragmatism but an opportunity for regenerating the discourse.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Democracy, Freedom of Information and the authoritarians

Perhaps ironically, the day that Murdoch's vilest organ produces a picture of the current monarch being trained in giving a Nazi salute as a child, for no apparent reason other than mischief-making and as a reminder that the real power-mongers are not to be trifled with, is the day on which reaction should commence to the latest assaults on democracy, freedom and accountability.

The Blair years were not noted for their approach to freedom - preferring a moralistic theocratic adulation of all things Bush and neo-conservative, but had inherited opposition pledges of accountability through Freedom of Information - bringing government decisions to account and enabling, with a degree of intellect and persistent, the citizen to find out at least some of the idiocies, corruption and incompetence that characterise much public administration.  An inconvenient truth is that opposition always craves more information, whereas when in power the aim is to restrict and redact.

With so much government outsourced to a bunch of motley cronies, FOI itself is much more important than it was when the first legislation appeared.  To be able to scrutinise contracts and the interactions between authorities and their opposite numbers, including the porosity between the contractor and the delivery agent, is fundamental.  It is not just about the formation of policy but also about the operation of public administration.

When this is added to the recent revelations that, despite a conclusive vote of MPs under the Coalition, British service personnel have been used in combat in Syria - without further consent or discussion, alongside the persistent and honourable battle to unearth the undue influence of the Prince of Wales on political activity, then the need for more rather than less disclosure becomes compelling. Where there is no accountability or transparency, then there is much more possibility of politicians getting away with the kind of sharp practice that undermines any residual trust in the process.

Alongside the potential further erosion of citizen freedoms, it was amusing to note that the idea that the UK's constitutional future should be left to a Joint Committee of the unelected Lords and the undemocratic Commons has traction amongst Tory grandees.  The sheer stupidity of the current situation, caused by Cameron's idiotic panic and grandstanding around the Scottish independence referendum, should make it clear to almost anyone with a brain (clearly this excludes Lord Forsyth and many of the commentators) that a long-term, stable solution needs a non-partisan, expert approach.  There is already a process available through a Royal Commission, but this would not be manipulable in the way that the reactionaries require.

Within two months of Cameron and his paymasters being given more power, we are watching the return of the patrician, contemptuous Tory party.  Add to this many of the statists in Labour, who are coalescing around authoritarianism given their compliance in incompetence, and there is a clear need for the anti-authoritarian, radical tendencies to articulate their contempt and derision for the process.  For every technical change required in FOI, which may well be the case, the Tories will try to sneak through further reduction in the ability of citizens to scrutinise and challenge the corruption of government.  The break-up of the UK is accelerated through the aim of excluding the views of either the little people or the reformers.  Time for a politics of insurgency.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Polly Toynbee, Labour ostriches and the Melanie Phillips factor

There is something inexorably silly about the emissions from Polly Toynbee.  While her strike rate for being right is marginally greater than an infinite number of monkeys tasked with a redraft of Hamlet, she is rapidly becoming the left-wing equivalent of Melanie Phillips - a ubiquitous repetition of self-asserting drivel and intolerance for any view that does not chime with her own.  Her journey from the SDP to Blairite apologist is mirrored by many of the patronising Labour right, who cannot stomach pluralism and alternative priorities to theirs, but her recent toxic oozings in the light of the General Election have moved beyond parody.

A recent piece attacking Tim Farron as someone with the luxury to be outspoken spectacularly missed the point.  Labour's establishment are still in denial about the extent to which their inability to articulate an alternative programme and set of values, at the same time as alienating core voters and floaters alike, is not just a product of leadership ineptitude and more the secular decline of a party whose combination of arrogance and naivety leads it into the trap of "one more heave" and the assumption that people will return to the fold next time.

This may make it easier to be a Liberal at the moment than a Labour supporter.  Paradoxically, the scale of retribution enacted on the Liberals means that they have suffered the equivalent of being ejected in only the clothes they stand up in.  Labour have, in fact, been hoist by their own entitlement and the inability to exploit a collapsing centre-left alternative and an unpopular government.  So the Toynbee formula is a combination of "realism" and tracking to a mythical centre, where the promised land apparently awaits.  Forget that the party is irrelevant and wounded in Scotland for decades, forget that the vagaries of the electoral system and the corruption of the Tories will lock them out in England and Wales as well, and you might just see an increase in support by 2020.

This is the message being peddled in the Labour leadership election.  Naturally Polly seems to want them to be an alternative government with the responsibility round their shoulders of being marginally better than the Tories, which is not really a challenge even for a sociopathic skunk, rather than articulating ideas and setting a programme that might engage with the myriad anti-Tory groups who do not find it either desirable or necessary to shut up and listen to the residue of the Blair cabal squabbling over the pieces.

Every time I encounter the Labour leadership contest, the unreality astounds me.  If you discount Liz Kendall, whose main cheerleader appears to be Tristram Hunt, auditioning to become the next Woodrow Wyatt though right-wing slavering, then both Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham offer more of the same.  Jeremy Corbyn is actually addressing popular concerns and issues - and setting out something that might even on occasion be in advance of public opinion.  Politicians should be leading, rather than being cowed by the commentariat.

The realism needs to sink in that the opposition will need not just to sit and wait but to set itself a task to define both consensus and difference - where there is consensus then adult politics should ensue, rather than an closing-down of the debate that only Labour can drive change.  Adopting a constitutional convention as a challenge is part of that, giving the UK the benefits of the system that drove the Scottish devolution settlement.  We should not be listening to yesterday's Blair-lite agenda, rather spending time defining what it is that would turn the UK into a modern, federal democracy where change is not feared and where politics is not defined by a set of the unrepresentative in fealty to Murdoch.  The BBC is a topic for another day!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Tube strikes, democracy and the idiot commenters

From the vantage point of the pinnacle of electoral support attained by the Tories it is very difficult to look down on anyone else.  Considering the glee with which they are stripping the vestiges of representative government, for example through the contemptuous "Tory votes for English laws" scam, any attempt to denounce trade union members who exercise their ability to withdraw their labour within the law should be seen as the risible hypocrisy that it is.

Inconvenient strikes may be, but they are a legitimate approach to management when culture is inept and bullying, and where trust has broken down through combinations of bungled negotiations and a lack of confidence in the process leading to an equitable result.  In other cases they may be an abuse of power and position, but these are generally few and far between, given both the economic deterrent to the individual through lost earnings and the significant hoops that union members must jump through in order to make actions legitimate.

What always amuses me is that the Tories have acquired a retinue of dog-whistling fools, not all of them employed in Central Office, whose main aim is to patrol the internet with a set of claptrap and a level of abuse that can be summarised as follows:

  • I am prepared to be walked over at work as I have neither the imagination nor the economic power to change the matter, and I am deeply grateful for having being given a vile job in which I can nurture a sense of grievance and envy against those who do better than I do;
  • I don't actually know what other people do at work, but I assume that it must be very simple and therefore they don't deserve the right to withdraw their labour;
  • What these evil strikers are doing is stopping me from going to work, and my rights trump their rights at all times;
  • I am too stupid to understand that the labour market's functioning is based around the transactional implications of "market" - if workers have a grievance, the legal mandate and the willingness to withdraw their labour this is entirely legitimate.  The proposition that there is a symmetry that implies management has no right therefore to remove jobs or propose any change would cause both brain cells to malfunction simultaneously;
  • Despite being totally ignorant of the details of any situation, I am prepared to comment that people "earn too much", their job levels are unskilled compared to mine, and that they are either "scum" or "dinosaurs" for daring to challenge a race to the bottom;
  • They should all be sacked as anyone can do their jobs - and I cannot understand that this couldn't happen overnight as their replacements would need recruitment, training and the removal of those without the aptitude or competence thereafter;
  • I think everyone should tug their forelocks and accept whatever they are given by their betters;
  • In the case of the Tube strikes, I am not able to appreciate the irony that the "crap service" is principally the responsibility of the management whose actions are supported uncritically.

To achieve the level of support for strikes that the London Underground unions have managed seems to be remarkable and totally counter to the narrative that management and the troll-feeders are putting out.  From long experience, union membership is usually seen as an insurance policy, and in unionised workplaces industrial and personal relationships can be entirely productive both in terms of dealing with routine issues and improving communications across the organisation.  To have reached the stage where over 70% of those voting in the least-militant union are prepared to endorse losing pay and facing the cretinous abuse outlined above suggests that there is something wrong with an organisation.

What is even more ironic is that most of the recent ballots reported on would have been legitimate votes even under the latest proposals from the Tories to further restrict the opportunities for striking, and much stronger than the mandate that either Cameron or Johnson received from their respective electorates.  The level of restriction that the more unthinking, anti-liberty Tories would want to impose on collective action is breathtaking - it resembles the level of control and constraint that veers towards the totalitarian.  It will also prove counterproductive, as if it drives action towards the unofficial and the wildcat it will remove the very controls that its half-baked publicity-seeking proponents wish to pretend they want.

In the case of the current Tube dispute, the issues are complex and not, primarily, around pay.  Since the announcement of the closure of ticket offices, and the consequential staff reduction, the industrial relations issues have been toxic and bubbling below the surface - occasionally resulting in strikes when there has been a particularly vicious breakdown in discussions.  Add to this proposals to run the Tube all night on Fridays and Saturdays, which is superficially attractive but fraught with problems given the need to maintain and improve the system, which appear to have been progressed without proper consultation or planning for the number of staff involved, it is hardly surprising that staff in all roles find it impossible to trust management - even before the farce of a last-minute offer with ultimatum on the side that was perpetrated on Monday.

As a Tube user, I want to see good passenger service with professional staff.  The kneejerk reaction of the commenters seems to suggest that any change proposed should not be scrutinised and agreed, and that staff have it good.  Even two journeys each day makes it clear what a horrible place to work the Tube can be - polluted, hot and overcrowded as London's population growth pushes a system well beyond its comfortable limits into the edge of danger every time there is the slightest disruption.  Working in the centre all day, underground is a challenging commitment, especially when dealing with either the knuckle-draggers or their cousins with equal senses of self-defined entitlement.

Add to this shift work, which is unpredictable and disruptive - as well as the need to maintain the ability to deal effectively with emergencies - and it becomes a commitment for which fewer and fewer people have the aptitude.  Whenever the fools rant on about train driver wages, "for just pushing a lever", I curse their ignorance of a role which may be 85% routine and repetitive, but for the other 15% requires stored and constantly-updated knowledge, and for which much of the time is isolated from both passengers and co-workers.  I personally do not want to be thirty metres below the surface with either no or an under-trained, demotivated person in charge - but that is personal preference, remembering the stalwart effort of staff during terrorist incidents and other disruption.

There is bound to be a resolution at some point.  If the Tories had been serious about reducing strikes in public services they might have been more interested in compulsory independent arbitration rather than changing ballot thresholds - but this is knee-jerk politics for the amoral Johnson and his cheerleaders rather than an attempt to reform the situation.  The inadequacies of management are a dominant theme, and by deploying the troll army, this is being obscured - any system which provided more transparency might make it clear to the more evolved end of the right that poor skills in management are often much more provocative than the issues at stake, and creating a culture that would be anathema to Victorian mill-owners is unlikely to be either stable or sustainable.  I shall now be inconvenienced, but the expression of labour's economic and collective rights is an important freedom that does not trump the ravings of the deluded.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The grotesque perversions of economic masochism

On Wednesday this week, the lunatic will get to take over the asylum.  George Osborne will have the opportunity to prevent a Conservative budget that dog-whistles to the core support while playing to the gallery of the hypocritical and self-interested.  For the last two months he has been spinning the mantra of social security cuts and giveaways to the groups who need government largesse the least.  The end of Cameron's bizarre honeymoon will not be long delayed.

For sheer economic illiteracy, it is difficult to beat a contemporary Tory.  The artificial divide between the so-called "hard-working family" and the remainder of the population, hard-working or otherwise, is used to pump up resentment and paranoia.  Forgetting the lessons of two centuries of economic history, there is some mythical golden age where the paupers knew their place and where philanthropy (which in reality only scraped the surface of Victorian misery) takes the place of any form of social cohesion.

The latest cretinous policy, trailed with the cretinous hand-claps of the Mail and Telegraph, is to increase the inheritance tax threshold to £1m for "family homes".  Even in the bubble regime of undersupply and market distortion for housing, this is not exactly within the normal compass of daily experience for the majority of people.  It will do nothing to address the shortage of housing, the parasitic buy-to-let or the odious right-to-buy being propagated by Cameron.  It will do nothing to address inequality, rather continuing the dynastic entitlements that remain the grail of so many of the chinless fools who populate the upper reaches of the Tories and their cronies in business and the financial services sector.

Naturally this is portrayed as encouraging aspiration - by taking a few estates at the top end of the range out of a tax which is hardly punitive in the first place.  That it does nothing for the people it is supposed to inspire is axiomatic.  There is another whole debate about inter-generational justice and the provision of equality of opportunity for all, which is entirely legitimate, but slightly tangential to the hatred and contempt that Osborne will exhibit in his cynical parading.

At the same time as a minor giveaway to client groups, the centrepiece of the budget will be the hacking away at social security and the last vestiges of Beveridge's ambition for civilisation.  Debating the right mix of support and incentive to come off benefits is legitimate, but the extent of savagery will dwarf the bedroom tax fiasco in the last Parliament.  Both Labour and the Coalition relied on welfare, in the form of tax credits, to subsidise employment and massage the statistics, and in many respects a regime that forces firms to stop being subsidy junkies (oh, the irony) and pay a living salary would be welcome - if it were to happen.  Instead, alongside further benefit cuts, it risks increasing poverty, inequality and the benefits trap will be restored.

Not that this worries Osborne, Cameron and their coterie.  For every piece of theatrical hand-wringing, there are ten misanthropic and contemptuous back-stairs assaults on social cohesion.  A system which gives to those who already have and pauperises those who have not is neither just nor stable.  It has become fashionable in political circles to bemoan the loss of Liberal influence on the government - the Budget that the Tatton Twister will present will be final confirmation that we have a bunch of arrogant mini-me Thatcherites in power.  This resembles 1980 more than 1990, and it would not be difficult to see the social breakdown and hopelessness spilling over into an anarchic and nihilist hopelessness.  Time for the rest of us to call it how we see it, and that includes Tories not suckered into the patrician illusion.